Of all the lies that anti-gay campaigns are airing to scare voters away from supporting marriage equality, the most absurd is the claim that marriage doesn't really matter -- or shouldn't matter -- for committed gay couples.
An ad running in Washington asserts that "gays and lesbians already have the same legal rights as married couples." Maine voters, in an ad rated "Mostly False" by the Kennebec Journal, are hearing that "same-sex couples already have the legal protections of marriage in virtually all matters."
There are three big problems with this lie. The first is that, as court after court has recognized, separate is not equal; civil unions and domestic partnerships simply don't provide "the same legal rights" as marriage. Secondly, alternative forms of recognition don't always work in times of crisis, leading to devastating consequences for couples who thought their relationships were protected. Third, as the so-called National Organization for Marriage (NOM) and other opponents well know, marriage is more than a collection of legal rights.
Even setting aside those points, let's pause for a moment to note the disingenuousness of the opposition's 11th-hour assurance that if there are gaps in protections for same-sex relationships, "anything remaining can be addressed without redefining marriage." For years NOM, Catholic bishops and others opposed to marriage for same-sex couples have strenuously opposed civil unions, domestic partnerships and other forms of relationship recognition. Just last year NOM labeled civil unions a "direct threat" to marriage.
There are many in the anti-gay opposition still holding this line. Greg Scott of the lawsuit arm of the opposition movement, the Alliance Defending Freedom, told a reporter from Maine why his group remains opposed to civil unions and domestic partnerships: "It's not a middle ground, it's a stepping stone to legal challenges to marriage."
But with a solid majority of Americans in support of marriage for same-sex couples, the mainstream opposition campaigns know that they need to come off as reasonable. Here are the problems with their claim.
Separate Is Not Equal
States where courts or governmental commissions have examined the question (including California, Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Jersey and Vermont) have rejected a purportedly separate but equal status for gay couples. The Connecticut Supreme Court wrote, "There is no doubt that civil unions enjoy a lesser status in our society than marriage." The Massachusetts Supreme Court called the differences between civil marriage and civil unions "not innocuous; [but] ... a considered choice of language that reflects a demonstrable assigning of same-sex ... couples to second-class status." A New Jersey commission wrote, "Civil unions ... send a message to the public: same-sex couples are not equal to opposite-sex married couples in the eyes of the law, that they are 'not good enough' to warrant true equality. This is the same message that racial segregation laws wrongfully sent. Separate treatment was wrong then and it is just as wrong now."
Alternative Recognition Often Doesn't Work
When the worst happens, would you want to rely on EMTs or police officers to recognize a stack of legal papers as the functional equivalent of a marriage? Ask Janice Langbehn, who was forced by a Miami hospital to wait for eight hours before being granted a five-minute visit with her partner of 18 years, Lisa Pond, even after she showed their power of attorney document. After Pond died without Janice or their children by her side, President Obama issued an executive order mandating that all hospitals that receive federal funds extend visitation rights to partners of gay men and lesbians. Despite that order, Terri Ann Simonelli was denied the right to make medical decisions for her partner by a Las Vegas hospital this year when her partner, Brittany Leon, checked in with complications that led to the loss of her pregnancy. Cases in Maryland, Tennessee and elsewhere continue to demonstrate that too often, alternative forms of relationship recognition just aren't recognized.
Marriage Is More Than a Collection of Rights
Finally, as NOM well knows, marriage matters for reasons that go far beyond the rights and benefits accorded to the status under state and federal law. Tom Little, who was the Republican chair of the Vermont legislative committee that enacted civil unions in that state in 2000, later chaired the Commission on Family Recognition and Protection, which, in his words, "couldn't come up with a compelling reason not to go to marriage." Little puts it like this: "To me the strongest argument for full inclusion in marriage is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts -- the social, cultural, historical and spiritual meaning of marriage."
And that -- why marriage really matters to people, gay and straight -- is what's at the heart of the question at the ballot box this November. Everywhere I've traveled and spoken to people, I've asked, "Would you trade your marriage for a civil union or domestic partnership? I've never met a married couple who answered "yes."