The recent legalization of same-sex marriage in New York proves that it's no longer an issue in the United States, right? Gay marriage will eventually, but certainly, become widely accepted everywhere, right?
Not if the American people have anything to say about it.
So far, the question has been put directly to American voters 31 times, and 31 times voters have said marriage is a one-man and one-woman deal, according to Maggie Gallagher, chairman of the National Organization for Marriage. Most notably was theProposition 8 referendum in which Californiavoters overrode a state supreme court decision ratifying same-sex marriage.
Yet, the march to official recognition of gay marriage by lawmakers and the courts is inevitable despite public opposition, its supporters say. Seven states (including California where a federal judge ruled the Prop 8 results don't matter) and the District of Columbia now issue same-sex marriage licenses. New York's legal redefinition of marriage seals it.
Our attention is directed to public opinion polls that generally show a softening of opposition to same-sex marriage. The polls reflect a growing public attitude that is characterized by this sort of sentiment: "I don't care what they do. Gays getting married doesn't hurt me, so why should I be against it?"
(A more recent poll, however, found that 62 percent of Americans agreed — and 53 percent strongly agreed — with the statement, "I believe marriage should be defined only as a union between one man and one woman." Same-sex marriage supporters, however, will denounce the poll as bogus because it was sponsored by the Alliance Defense Fund, a group that defends religious liberty, and Public Opinion Strategies, a polling firm that serves Republican clients.)
Whatever the polls say, a real test of public opinion will come again in another important referendum next year when Minnesota voters will decide whether to amend their state constitution in support of traditional marriage.
Indeed, Illinois' recent legalization of civil unions for gay (and heterosexual) couples does contribute to a growing feeling of isolation among traditional-marriage supporters. Get on board now or get steamrolled, they are warned. The path of history will lead Americans to view traditional-marriage supporters with the same disdain, even disgust, that now is reserved for past supporters of racial segregation, a recent letter writer to the Tribune observed.
Such comparisons, of course, are loathsome, especially to those of us who were around and giving full voice to civil rights advances when doing so was not a popular position. We understand the difference between eliminating the odious institution of Jim Crow and defending an institution that is one of civil society's oldest, most enduring and beneficial — marriage. It was not for nothing that societies for millenniums recognized marriage for its civilizing properties and stepped in to regulate them secularly. That's because marriage, among other things, seeks to protect the lives and rights of women and children in a historically patriarchal society.
The formulated response to this point is that marriage can continue to go on protecting those lives and rights whether or not gays and lesbians are legally included in the marriage contract.
But that's too simplistic. Cultural institutions like marriage can be fragile structures, bending to the crosswinds of changing public attitudes. Tamper with them too much, and they become diluted and ineffective in their purpose.
I believe people have rights to legally designate in contract law who can visit them in hospitals, who can be named as insurance beneficiaries and the raft of other considerations sought for gay and lesbian couples. Call the arrangement civil unions if you wish.
But that's not the same as defining any union a marriage.
My fear — based on secular, more than religious precepts — is that watering down marriage could eventually rob society of the stabilizing and other beneficial effects of an institution now relentlessly under attack. Perhaps this argument is too ethereal to be grasped or accepted in an age of radical individualism. But it's an argument that is understood by plenty of Americans willing to state it, although it puts them in danger of being painted as haters.