Editorial: Equal Rights is the Responsibility of Every American

April 27, 2003

George W. Bush ran for President on the promise that he would be ``a uniter, not a divider.' Nothing could be further from the truth. Earlier this week, Senator Rick Santorum, the third highest ranking Republican in the Senate, compared homosexuality to bigamy, polygamy, incest and adultery.

On Friday, President Bush praised Santorum as ``an inclusive man.' With his praise, this President has once again demonstrated his willingness to follow the extremist Republican tradition of dividing our country for political gain. The President knows that his defense of Santorum's inflammatory words deeply offends millions of gay and lesbian Americans, their family and friends; his praise also raises grave concerns about this Administration's commitment to civil rights and civil liberties.

Senator Santorum has called his repugnant remarks ``a legitimate public policy discussion.' Senator Santorum is wrong. Equating the private, consensual activities of adults to the molestation of minors is not a policy discussion. It is gay-bashing, and it is immoral.

Senator Santorum asserted that the government has the right ``to limit individuals' wants and passions.' While the government has the right to protect citizens from the harmful acts of others, as well as an obligation to promote the general welfare of all people, I do not believe that it is the proper role of government to step into the private bedrooms of consenting adults. The continuous assault by right-wing radicals on the privacy of ordinary Americans must stop.

Senator Santorum must step down from his leadership post. His failure to recognize that it is wrong to attack people because of which group they belong to makes him unfit to hold a leadership position in the United States Senate.
The issue at hand is about more than Senator Santorum's reprehensible statements, however, and the issue is also about more than the dignity and respect of gay and lesbian Americans.

The issue is whether we, as Americans, will continue to allow ourselves to be led down a path by this Administration to a country that is divided against itself by race, income, gender, sexual orientation and religion.

Senator Santorum's remarks do not exist in isolation. In January, President Bush went on national television to discuss the Supreme Court's hearing of the University of Michigan's affirmative action case. One of the most despicable moments of this President's Administration occurred when, on national prime time television, he used the word "quotas" repeatedly to describe the University of Michigan's admissions policy.

President Bush knows that the University of Michigan does not now have, and has never had, quotas. His use of the race-loaded word "quota" is intended to incite people's fears of losing their jobs, or their positions in America's leading universities, to minorities. Such rhetoric, which is designed to appease the extreme right-wing of the Republican Party and to appeal to Americans' worst instincts, betrays the guiding principle that America is a nation in which all people are created equal.

Achieving this equality requires moral leadership. It sometimes requires standing against your party's base. It is not moral leadership when the third highest ranking Republican in the Senate intimates that the sexual abuse of minors is no different than the consensual acts of adults, and the President's spokesperson responds by praising that man for ``doing a good job as Senator.'

Three years ago, I signed into law the civil unions bill, a law that guarantees same-sex couples in Vermont the same legal rights as married couples. The Vermont Supreme Court in December of 1999 held that gay and lesbian people were not being provided with equal rights in our state. An hour and a half after that court issued its decision, I told the press and the people of Vermont that I would support a bill making our state the first in the country to provide all Americans with equality under the law. At the time, approximately 35% of the people favored the bill, and 60% were opposed.

I signed the civil unions bill because it was the right thing to do. Those of us who came of age during the civil rights movement have long understood that the strength of America lies in our commitment to equal rights under the law for everyone. Civil unions provide equal inheritance rights, equal hospital visitation rights, and equal insurance rights. Every legal right that I have as a married person, anybody in Vermont can have, including gays and lesbians. Today, Vermont is the only place in America where equal rights under the law means equal rights under the law for every citizen, not just for the people we like or the people we're comfortable with or the people who look like us.

President Bush's and Senator Santorum's remarks remind us that while laws may guarantee equal rights, laws alone do not create equality. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 guarantees equal rights for minorities in this country, but the law did not end racism and prejudice. The civil unions law guarantees equal rights for same-sex couples in Vermont, but the law did not end discrimination toward gays and lesbians.

Creating equality for all requires the personal responsibility of everyone. As Americans, we can no longer tolerate politics of division and still hope to achieve the promise of equality envisioned by our Founding Fathers. The dream of equal rights for all Americans will only be realized when all of us-whether in the corridors of power or in the hallways of our schools and offices-come together to create a community in which bigotry and hatred is cast out from the forum of public discourse.

I believe equal rights can be achieved, but it will only be achieved when we have leaders in the highest offices of the land who stop pandering to bigots in exchange for a handful of votes.

Copyright 2003 by TruthOut.org

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