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Why There Is No Middle Ground on the Marriage Issue

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A thought experiment: Two managers conduct a joint interview with an Iranian man for a job at a factory in Omaha. One of the managers was raised by xenophobic, racist parents who practiced skepticism towards those from the Middle East, while the other manager has traveled extensively, was raised by open-minded parents, and has no such instinctive sense of intolerance. After the interview, during which both managers were impressed by the applicant's experience and qualifications for the supervisor position at stake, the first manager expresses his apprehensions about hiring a Middle-Easterner, for reasons which are unambiguously racially-charged. The second manager, while disagreeing with his co-worker and finding himself morally offended, looks for the most peaceable solution to this predicament. He subsequently suggests that they hire the candidate -- who is undeniably valuable -- but to appease the other manager's feelings, hires the Iranian man not in management capacity, where he knows he ought to be, but several steps lower in pay and rank.

Who of the two managers bears greater moral reprehensibility for this discriminatory hiring?

It is not outside the realm of reason to suggest that the second manager has committed the more regrettable of the two sins. The racist manager has had no crisis of conscience. To a large degree, he confidently views his racial skepticism as an innate value, a simple matter of basic human judgment. (Here one notices that the word ignorant has begun to creep into the conversation.) No, it is the more liberal of the two managers that has been dealt the moral dilemma. He is aware in this instance of the ethically correct course of action -- to either override the racist manager, or get him fired -- but sidesteps this obligation. He compromises, in order to ensure the hiring of the Iranian man, even in a demeaning capacity, while avoiding confrontation with his co-worker. And it is here that a sturdy parallel begins to emerge between the moral pragmatism at work in this fictitious manager's concession, and in those who support civil unions as a tenable solution to the marriage debate.

Civil unions, or what are called domestic partnerships in California and four other states, are designed to provide all the state and local benefits of marriage to legally-recognized same-sex couples, but without actually calling it marriage. A few states, including New Jersey, recognize these unions statewide, and over a dozen states recognize them on a city or county level. These are pragmatic setups that secure same-sex couples tangible rights and benefits, often to the extent that they are indistinguishable from marriage from a legal standpoint, while preserving the traditional definition of marriage as between a man and woman. That last piece is the most crucial, as a recent Quinnipiac poll informs us: while only 38% of Americans support gay marriage nationally, a rather robust 57% support civil unions (in fairness, a Washington Post/ABC poll found that 49% support gay marriage, but the discrepancy is still statistically significant).

And thus it is not surprising that it is the latter of these unions that garners the endorsement of mainstream Democratic (and some moderate Republican) politicians. During the Human Rights Campaign Forum for 2008 Democratic Presidential hopefuls, only two candidates - Rep. Kucinich, and former Gov. Gravel of Alaska - voiced support for gay marriage; the rest, including then-Senator Obama, were only willing to go as far as civil unions. This is the politically-safe, least contentious road to travel in mainstream politics. And, mindful of the 2004 election, one could argue that Mr. Obama's middle-ground stance on the issue helped position him to pick up the socially-conservative independent votes needed to take the White House.

This would not, however, make it right.

While being careful here not to obfuscate the moral atrocity that is the exclusionary philosophy of the religious right - hypocrisy worth pondering - the case needs to be made that it would be much more productive for those working towards genderless marriage to focus on these moral pragmatists -- the moderate legislator, the open-minded citizen, the liberal clergy -- constituencies that make up the real battlefield of this fight (or are at least its potential tipping point). Theirs are the spirits, much like the conflicted factory manager, that must be bolstered from one of compromise and concession to one of unflinching moral obligation. A shift in this demographic, that 10% or so that supports civil unions but not marriage, is the difference between a heated debate and a public mandate for equality.

The case itself is rather simple. Civil unions provide neither the full rights to same sex couples as enjoyed by heterosexual couples, nor the sentiment. While states like California may boast complete equality in states rights for domestic partnerships, these couples are restricted from 1,138 federal laws pertaining to married couples. These are not insignificant provisions either, ranging from the right to file joint federal tax returns (which protects couples from having to pay estate and gift taxes in transfers of assets), to Social Security survivor benefits. Other restrictions of tangible rights include immigration status for foreign nationals (who cannot become citizens through a civil union), veterans' benefits such as pensions, housing, and medical care, and the lack of recognition of civil unions across state lines, which forces couples to stay put if they want to retain their rights and benefits.

Then there is the moral case. One need not rely too heavily on comparisons with Jim Crow laws of the early 20th century. One need not enlarge too dramatically the parallels in the arguments for separate civil unions with the arguments for separate civil rights. All of these arguments are, and were then, cowardly. President Obama, explaining his position at the same 2008 HRC forum, said, "We should try to disentangle what has historically been the issue of the word 'marriage,' which has religious connotations to some people, from the civil rights that are given couples." The problem with that is that the word "marriage" also has legal connotations, as we have seen. Unless we strike "marriage" from the books, and choose to call all couples civil unions, or domestic partnerships, or whatever term satisfactorily removes the sanctity and spirituality from it, they will be, as they are now, separate. And unequal.

Somewhere along the way, amidst all the effusive platitudes of late about pragmatism and bipartisanship, liberals have lost their moral virility. There are times for political deal making, as we witness daily in the debate over health care, and as we will no doubt witness in the coming debates over climate change and energy reform. But at what point did matters of human rights get confused with fiscal policy? When did the party of moral obligation, the party of President's F. Roosevelt, Johnson, and the Kennedy brothers, decide that human rights were as reducible as a public option? Why have we constituents not reprimanded those representatives that treat equality as a negotiable substance?

Change often does come slow, and incrementally, as the course of the 20th century painfully taught us. But this does not mean that those who are on the right side of history, who believe that marriage ought to be viewed as Constitutionally genderless, have to stand up for it incrementally. The slow nature of progress does not mean advocates for human rights ought to wait for public opinion to shift. History teaches us otherwise. When the 19th Amendment came to the floor of Congress, less than half the states had granted full or partial voting rights to women. When Roe v. Wade was decided, a slim majority of 52% of Americans supported it. And in 1967, on the eve of Loving v. Virginia, an abysmal 30% supported interracial marriage. The rhyme of history has been such that, often, public opinion evolves in the direction of rightness only after brave advocates have blazed an unpopular trail for us in the name of conscience. If it will not be our morally-pragmatic President, to whom will that torch now be passed?

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