10/27/2006 11:01 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Marriage Equality in New Jersey: Should Democrats Remain Silent?

It took less than a day for traditional values groups to celebrate the
boost they think they are about to receive from the New Jersey Supreme
Court ruling that gay couples must enjoy the same rights as heterosexuals.
According to the Court, gay couples must receive the same privileges and
benefits as heterosexual couples, although the state is not required to
refer to gay unions as "marriages". In a 4-3 decision, the Court said
that New Jersey.s legislature must decide whether gay unions will be
referred to as marriages or civil unions.

Leaders of traditional values groups could not have been happier. Tony
Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, portrayed the
ruling as a strategic opportunity for Republican leaders who are trying to
rally the far-right base of their party: "I have to think there are
Democratic strategists out there thinking the words of the old Japanese
admiral: 'I fear all we've done is wake a sleeping giant.'" Others
concurred. Reverend Richard Land of the Southern Baptist Convention
suggested that, "Pro-traditional-marriage organizations ought to give a
distinguished service award to the New Jersey Supreme Court."

The White House is somewhat desperately shifting into high gear, seeking
of course to bolster turnout on November 7. President Bush hopes to
energize far-right conservatives by making the election about gay
marriage, and during an Iowa campaign stop he said that, "Yesterday in New
Jersey, we had another activist court issue a ruling that raises doubts
about the institution of marriage."

Should Democrats respond? Evidently not. A search through official
Democratic Party web sites reveals nothing about the New Jersey decision,
and party leaders are only weighing in when asked directly by journalists.

There are certainly important reasons why Democrats may choose to remain
silent, or as silent as possible, about gay marriage at this time. On the
one hand, marriage equality has been portrayed as a wedge issue that
divides key Democratic constituents from one another. Just as many gay
activists are intensely pro-marriage-equality, many African American
ministers are dead-set against it. On the other hand, Democrats rightly
hesitate to divert attention from the issues that are turning people away
from the Republican party: the incompetent management of the Iraq war, the
leadership's hypocrisy in protecting Mark Foley, widespread corruption,
and a pattern of flip-flops, the latest of which involved staying/not
staying the course.

What makes matters worse is that many Reagan Democrats in the South and
Midwest now appear to be ready to return to the fold. The last thing that
the party wants to do is to alienate conservative Democrats at this
crucial moment.

All that said, didn't the attacks that derailed John Kerry's bid for the
White House illustrate the dangers of remaining silent while one is being
swift-boated? The Democrats need to take a clear stand in favor of gay
marriage, not just civil unions, and they need to do so now. There are
three reasons for taking the offensive.

First, the President's reaction to the New Jersey decision provides an
outstanding opportunity to portray Bush as a flip-flopper of the worst
kind. Bush has clearly stated that he supports civil unions. Now, he mocks a ruling that allows
civil unions. Democrats can and should portray Bush as a flip-flopper
about what he believes.

Second, the social scientific evidence shows quite decisively that
marriage equality is good for children. (There are some studies that
suggest otherwise, but these were conducted by conservative activists
using bogus methodologies. All of the methodologically rigorous,
peer-reviewed research shows that marriage equality helps kids).
Democrats should not shy away from advocating policies that help children,
regardless of the politics.

Finally, third, if Democratic leaders do not take a clear stand for what
is right and for what most (behind closed doors) say that they privately
believe, they will be portrayed as wimps and flip-floppers who don't stand
behind their convictions. Just today, for example, the New York Times
reported that after New Jersey Governor Jon Corzine came out in favor of
allowing civil unions rather than gay marriage, he was attacked for having
supported gay marriage on previous occasions.

Supporting marriage equality may seem frightening. But there's a good
chance that the public will reward a brave stand that helps children, even
if that stance is seen by many as being too liberal. By contrast,
flip-flopping and shying away from convictions makes the party seem weak.
That is not something Democrats can afford at this time.