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Parini: Marriage Rights

05/09/12 5:55PM By Jay Parini
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(Host) President Obama endorsed gay marriage on Wednesday. But what got commentator Jay Parini thinking about the topic was how North Carolina voters dealt with what he considers a civil rights issue.

(Parini) In a recent vote North Carolina amended their state constitution to ban same-sex marriage. And watching that state's electorate go through its twists and turns of pre-vote debate, I was reminded that progress comes slowly - too slowly for many, perhaps - but the fact remains that in due course, progress comes. It can't be stopped.

I like to remind my students that, when my mother - who is still going strong, by the way - was born in 1917, women didn't have the right to vote. The constitution wasn't amended until 1920 to make that possible. Today's students almost can't believe there are people still alive who once didn't have the right to vote just because of their gender.

But Civil Rights often take a long time to find enough like-minded people to secure their place as settled law, and I'm proud of Vermont in its response to gay rights. We're a small state that packs a big wallop. Twelve years ago, we became the first state in the country to pass a civil union law. The right to marry in Vermont came in 2009. But it's going to take a long time to bring states like North Carolina up to speed.

The legendary preacher, Billy Graham, has rarely taken sides in overt political ways; but on same-sex marriage he was clear: "Watching the moral decline of our country causes me great concern," the pastor said, "I believe the home and marriage is the foundation of our society and must be protected."

This seems ironic to me, because the conservative South has considerably higher divorce rates than the supposedly liberal northeast. The numbers, in fact, are quite dramatic here - and prompt people like me to wonder what's going on.

Well, according to the Pew Research Center, it's at least partly related to educational levels. One recent study suggested that couples with less education have a much higher rate of divorce. Nobody knows why, exactly, but it may be true that wisdom comes with age and hard thinking. According to statistics, people in the South tend to marry younger, and these same people often have fewer educational opportunities.

In fact, StateMaster.com, a web site that aggregates a broad number of educational measurements, gives Vermont a ranking of number one in the country in the area of education, while North Carolina ranks 22nd, with all other southern states except Virginia falling well below that.

Now, I hasten to admit that one can see very smart people messing up their lives every day of the week, and an advanced diploma is no guarantee of wisdom or morality. But there are patterns, and they do suggest that the more you know, the better for everyone concerned. Certainly the moral fiber of American life has only benefited from the Civil Rights movement, and this encompasses race and gender, as well as sexual preference.

It was Ben Franklin who said: "Where Liberty dwells, there is my country." And as always, I say: Go, Ben.
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