How far does a Democracy have to go to accommodate minorities? *UPDATED*

This is not a post in which I opine.  Instead, I’m seeking your opinions about a question that’s been bedeviling me for some time.  What made it pop into my mind is a mass of statistics that Randall Hoven assembled regarding the percentage of gays in the American population.  As always with Hoven’s data, there’s a lot, so check out the post, but I just want to focus on this bit:

Various estimates of percentage of US population that is gay:

Average guess by polled Americans: 21% of men, 22% of women

Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male: 10%

National Gay and Lesbian Task Force: 3% to 8%

The Family Research Report: 2% to 3% of men, 2% of women

The 2000 US Census Bureau: less than 1%

You can’t be a sentient being in the U.S. today to know that gay activists are asking to change to significant American institutions:  marriage and the military.  When it comes to marraige, they want an ancient, often religiously-based, institution that has always involved men and women (even in polygamy, there’s a man involved), to be changed into a civil institution that involves two people proclaiming their love.  As for the military, which a traditionally manly venue that has nevertheless had homosexual overtones (the Romans), huge racist problems (a refusal to integrate until Harry Truman), and a slow and difficult time integrating women to work right alongside men (sex, sex and more sex, plus pregnancy), the gays now want it to be so that gays and lesbians can serve openly.  We already know that they are serving, and that the vast majority do so with pride, competency and patriotism — they just can’t talk about their love lifes or desires.

You also can’t be a sentient being with knowing that, in America and in other places, Muslims, who are a minority of the population, are making demands on the majority culture.  You probably remember when the Somali Muslims in St. Paul protested against driving passengers who were carrying (not drinking, just carrying) alcohol.  Clerks in stores, both in America and England, have protested at having to ring up sealed packages of pork based products.  Various PC schools have created prayer rooms and special bathrooms for the ritual washing required for Islam. Some swimming pools (the ones I can think of are in Europe, but you may know of some closer to home), have special “women only” hours to accommodate Muslim women, who cannot share a pool with men.

I know you can think of other examples in which a statistically small group within a democracy has asked for changes, ranging from the picayune to the significant, in the way in which the majority handles itself.  I use the gays and the Muslims as an example just because they’re easy examples, not because they’re the only ones.  Back in the 1930s and 1940s, a lot of the tension between majority rights in America and significantly small minorities involved Seventh-day Adventists (UPDATE:  and, an even better example, Jehovah’s Witnesses)— just a reminder that the issue isn’t always about sexuality, race, or a hostile religion.  (The Mormon fights with the American government in the 1860s are worth remembering too, as is the fact that the Mormons officially gave up polygamy in order to come within the American fold.)

My question for you is how far you think a democratic majority, especially one with constitutional civil rights protection, has to go to ensure that it’s minorities’ needs are protected.  I’ll tell you right off that I think that, sometimes, people in a minority class simply make the decision to step out of the mainstream.  Again, finding an example is easy for me:  for the most part, the ultra-Orthodox Jews just live their own lives, and to hell with the larger society.  They don’t make demands on America; they just ask to be left alone to live as they wish.  And they’re willing to accept that they won’t benefit from all America has to offer.  The Amish are another example.  All they ask is to be left alone.

Other groups, however, want to be left alone, but they also want to impose their values or traditions on America.

Help me out with this one.  I’m really struggling to figure out what constitutes ensuring that all citizens have full rights, versus making demands that are not reasonable.  I’ve got inchoate ideas about a strong center that every culture needs to maintain (that’s the melting pot), with the culture unable to sustain too much fragmentation in the face of too many disparate demands, but I’m not going anywhere with these thoughts.

Comment away my friends.  I know I can trust you to keep all comments civil and intellectual, and not to devolve into denigrating any particular group.

UPDATE:  Let me throw a few more things into the mix:

How do you define what’s a civil right, to which people are Constitutionally entitled, versus what’s a societally normative standard or behavior?  Gays argue that marriage is a civil right.  People opposed to gay marriage argue that marriage between a man and a woman is a civil right.  Gays argue that being denied the right to serve in the U.S. military is a denial of a civil right.  People opposed to this viewpoint say service is not a civil right, and the military can do what it takes to function effectively.  Gays shoot back that, in the 1940s and before, the military argued that refusing blacks the right to serve alongside whites [corrected for error implying blacks couldn’t serve at all] was a sure sign of an effectively functioning military.

What constitutes being left alone?  I can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke.  While I am opposed to government using its punitive powers to prevent people from smoking in private places (homes or businesses), my personal desires are well met by banning smoking in private places.  The smell bugs me, so I want the smokers, not me to suffer.  Who has the right of it here?  The smoker, who is deprived of the right to smoke; or me, who wants to be protected from having smoke inflicted on me?

Should some things be tied to citizenship?  I dislike multilingual ballots, because I feel that a prerequisite for participating in our nations political discourse is being sufficiently immersed in the country to speak the language.  Others say that the only thing that matters is being informed and that someone who can read a Chinese or Spanish language newspaper shouldn’t be forced to learn a new language in order to vote.

DQ told me that in a town in Pennsylvania, at great expense, they’re changing all the intersections so that the corners protrude into the street more.  The theory is that there are a lot of elderly people there, that elderly people cross the street slowly, and that it’s better to have the corners closer together so that elderly people don’t spend as much time on the roadway.  Drivers are incensed, since it bolluxes up traffic and requires more bobbing and weaving.  Whose rights should prevail?  The frail elderly or the drivers?  How should a democracy decide those things?

I think I already told you about what happened in my neighborhood.  Because we have a lot of children on the street, we we wanted a four way stop at a busy intersection.  The town told us it could only afford to make it a two way stop, which seemed stupid to us.  After all, how much can it cost to install two more stop signs?  It turns out that the expense was that, if a town makes any changes to an intersection, it is required by law to put wheelchair ramps on every single corner.  I like wheelchair ramps.  When I was pushing baby strollers, they were very helpful.  In our case, though, within 10 feet of each of the four new wheel chair ramps is at least one large driveway.  Also, the two stop signs prove to be meaningless in terms of protecting our children.  Forty thousands town dollars — for nothing.  Were handicapped rights advanced here?

Incidentally, in each case in which the government gets involved, it costs the tax payers money, whether affirmatively spent cash (longer, multilingual ballots; useless wheelchair ramps) or the cost of policing (and just how do you police whether someone is smoking in his own apartment, unless you also turn us into an East German-like nation of squealers?).

UPDATE II:  Sometimes stories just drop in your lap.  How’s this one about a school trying to limit traditional feminized cheerleading moves to girls, while being taking to task by a guy who falls into multiple minority categories:  gay, multiracial and mentally disabled.