Monday, February 23, 2009

Nothing Less

An op-ed in the New York Times written by David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch advocates a reconciliation of sorts between people in favor of same-sex marriage and those against it.

IN politics, as in marriage, moments come along when sensitive compromise can avert a major conflict down the road. The two of us believe that the issue of same-sex marriage has reached such a point now.

We take very different positions on gay marriage. We have had heated debates on the subject. Nonetheless, we agree that the time is ripe for a deal that could give each side what it most needs in the short run, while moving the debate onto a healthier, calmer track in the years ahead.

It would work like this: Congress would bestow the status of federal civil unions on same-sex marriages and civil unions granted at the state level, thereby conferring upon them most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage. But there would be a condition: Washington would recognize only those unions licensed in states with robust religious-conscience exceptions, which provide that religious organizations need not recognize same-sex unions against their will. The federal government would also enact religious-conscience protections of its own. All of these changes would be enacted in the same bill.

[…]

Yes, most gays are opposed to the idea that religious organizations could openly treat same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples differently, without fear of being penalized by the government. But we believe that gays can live with such exemptions without much difficulty. Why? Because most state laws that protect gays from discrimination already include some religious exemptions, and those provisions are for the most part uncontroversial, even among gays.

And while most Americans who favor keeping marriage as it has customarily been would prefer no legal recognition of same-sex unions at either the federal or the state level, we believe that they can live with federal civil unions — provided that no religious groups are forced to accept them as marriages. Many of these people may come to see civil unions as a compassionate compromise. For example, a PBS poll last fall found that 58 percent of white evangelicals under age 30 favor some form of legal same-sex union.

[…]

In all sharp moral disagreements, maximalism is the constant temptation. People dig in, positions harden and we tend to convince ourselves that our opponents are not only wrong-headed but also malicious and acting in bad faith. In such conflicts, it can seem not only difficult, but also wrong, to compromise on a core belief.

With all due respect to both Mr. Blankenhorn and Mr. Rauch, this idea has “separate but equal” written all over it, and I think we have a pretty good idea in this country how well that theory of social engineering has worked in the past.

So I have a better idea. How about we give every citizen in the country equal protection under the law, and not grant religious organizations the privilege of being able to dictate the laws of the land according to their precepts? Oh, wait; we already have those. They’re called, respectively, the Fourteenth and First Amendments to the Constitution. See how easy that was?

Seriously, while I appreciate the attempt at arriving at a reconciliation, in order for it to work you have to have both parties working from reasonable positions. The people in favor of same-sex marriage have the concept of equal rights on their side, while the opponents have little more than religious fundamentalism on theirs. That makes it difficult to arrive at a middle ground: it’s tough to argue with people who cite the scriptures of mythology as their source authority. And if you strip off the mask of religious dogma, you often find that you are dealing with the mindset of people who just don’t like gays and lesbians for reasons ranging from a fear of the unknown, an obsession with the sex lives of strangers, or an unhealthy oppression of their own natural instincts that have been forced by society or religion to conform to some expectation of what someone else has told them what “normal” and “traditional” is. That is not a foundation on which to write laws that have an impact on an entire community.

The authors make the case for religious conscience clauses that would allow churches to opt out of performing same-sex weddings or providing benefits to the same-sex partners of employees. They cite the case of Catholic hospitals being allowed to not perform abortions without legal entanglements. To compare abortion to same-sex marriage is a stretch at best and a straw man at worst. An abortion is an urgent medical procedure that should be done under strict medical supervision and as a last resort. Two people making a commitment to each other to share legal rights and responsibilities isn’t the same thing, and to offer them as equally taxing on the religious conscience is superficial and insulting to those in favor of reproductive choice and those who oppose it. Besides, no one is advocating that churches, synagogues, or temples be forced to perform ceremonies that go against their religious tenets. There are quite a few denominations that welcome and perform same-sex marriages, and chances are the happy couples that want a church wedding know or even belong to one of those congregations.

State and federal governments have the obligation to provide for equal rights for all the citizens of the state. They also have the authority to dictate the terms of a contract by limiting the number of people who may enter into certain contracts — thus outlawing polygamy — and by setting age limits of the people who may sign the contract — thus preventing underage marriage — or by requiring that both parties who enter into the contract be capable of understanding the terms and conditions of the contract and be able to affix their signature to it — thus putting an end to the fears that people could end up marrying a barnyard creature. But the government has no business dictating the terms of a contract based on the innate qualities of the parties — race, color, creed, national origin, sex, or sexual orientation. Nor should they allow the terms of a contract be dictated by religious or social custom solely because it might offend some people who otherwise have no standing in the matter. In other words, if it’s not your name on the dotted line, keep your nose out of someone else’s life.

Mr. Blankenhorn and Mr. Rauch are nobly offering a short-term solution while the nation comes to terms with the idea of same-sex marriage. The problem, however, with stop-gap measures is that they often become permanent and never resolve the question to its fair and logical conclusion. The truth is that despite setbacks in Florida and California and repeated attempts by the Religious Right to demonize, marginalize, and terrorize the LBGT community, equality for all citizens is only a matter of time. There will always be those who fight against it, but that makes it all the more worth it.

In the case of gay marriage, a scorched-earth debate, pitting what some regard as nonnegotiable religious freedom against what others regard as a nonnegotiable human right, would do great harm to our civil society. When a reasonable accommodation on a tough issue seems possible, both sides should have the courage to explore it.

All anyone is asking for is equality. We expect nothing more, and we will accept nothing less. That seems pretty reasonable to me.