The news this morning is that gay activists are downright baffled a week after the passage of Proposition 8 in California which has, in effect, re-illegalized gay marriage in that otherwise progressive state. Reports out today suggest that leaders in the movement may be contemplating a strategy which abandons, at least for now, the effort to bring equality to same-sex marriage.
This is sad but understandable for three reasons. First, the tide has been well established now - wherever constitutional amendments to specifically ban gay marriage appear on the ballots, they pass. Second, the chasm between those who advocate for gay marriage and the "moderate" position of civil unions does not seem to be closing. Finally, there is a growing risk of alienating more Americans on this issue, making it harder for other gay rights issues to find success in the near future.
But then I heard this idea expressed (I'm paraphrasing) on a recent cable news show, "The problem with pursuing civil unions as an alternative to continuing the fight toward acceptance of gay marriage is that you can barely come to the end of the sentence without some implicit support for the old 'separate but equal' strategy that postponed civil rights from being codified in the 1960's." That's the problem in a nutshell. We have learned through hard experience that separate but equal is inherently NOT.
The religious objections of many faith-filled people from a variety of faith backgrounds are real and genuine. The problem is not with them or with their faith-based objections -- not ultimately. The problem is that the government got into the business of legalizing a religious ceremony (marriage) and never got back out of it. In other words, by referring to the process outcome of a church wedding in the same terms as a justice of the peace ceremony or a Las Vegas chapel party as being the same, rather than calling the religious ceremony one thing and the legal status another, we have linked and muddled the two. In reality, they do not have to be the same thing forever.
Said another way, it strikes me as a violation of the spirit of separation of church & state to legislate who the church has to marry. Similarly, it is a violation for the church to tell the government who gets certain rights and benefits. If a church decides to bless the union of a man and his beagle, does the state of Georgia have to call them married? If the state of Georgia allows the marriage of a same sex couple, does the church have to recognize it?
Unraveling long traditions is never easy and may not be the right approach. Still, until we can see this situation differently, we are bound to keep repeating the same hardened positions over and over with little room for understanding, much less progress.
Look, I support gay marriage and had hoped that California would have upheld the rights of that state, but they did not. Rather than abandon hopes for equality altogether, maybe we should take this time to question some old assumptions on which our current thinking is based. Even if we acknowledge that those assumptions were valid once, we may find that they just don't serve a 21st century America.