Gay Marriage Politics

Sunday, January 29, 2006

POPULIST CHAMPIONS of intolerance in Virginia and Maryland are pushing constitutional amendments that would outlaw not only gay marriage but also civil unions, domestic partnerships and any other arrangement between consenting adults who happen to be homosexuals. Those amendments could have cruel and discriminatory effects, but that is of little moment to some of their advocates, who, confident that the wind of popular opinion is at their backs, assert a monopolistic claim on morality and God's law. We don't doubt that some state lawmakers genuinely believe that gay marriage somehow constitutes a threat to the traditional variety, or that they think that the children of gay unions may in some way be disadvantaged. But those views are tainted by an atmosphere of blatant political opportunism now seizing Richmond and Annapolis.

The push in Virginia is to amend the state's two-century-old Bill of Rights, from which the U.S. Constitution borrowed significantly, to prohibit homosexual marriage and other same-sex partnerships. The effort is especially gratuitous given that both already are banned by an overbroad state law. Backers contend that an amendment is necessary to preempt any state court ruling that might legalize gay marriage, as in Massachusetts. In reality, the chances of such a ruling by a Virginia court are close to zero. But posturing has trumped deliberation, and majorities of both houses of the General Assembly have voted to put the amendment on the November ballot. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who is opposed to gay marriage, nonetheless is balking at the amendment as written. Correctly, he has criticized it as being written so broadly as to pose a threat to partnership arrangements, contracts and other agreements between unmarried couples.

Maryland's debate is different but equally troubling. It was triggered by a Baltimore circuit judge's ruling this month that the state's 33-year-old ban on same-sex marriage is discriminatory. The state immediately appealed the ruling, as was its right. But that wasn't sufficient for some lawmakers, who, unwilling to await the appeals court's ruling, are now insisting on a constitutional prohibition similar to Virginia's.

As a general principle, we believe that these matters are best dealt with by elected legislators, not judges. But the issue is corrupted when the basic questions of fairness and equity at the heart of the gay marriage debate are subsumed by election-year politicking, as is the case now in Maryland. Since when does a single ruling by a lower-court judge, especially one that is under appeal, trigger a rush to amend the state constitution? In polls, Marylanders consistently put health care, education and transportation atop their list of public priorities. But Republicans in Annapolis apparently see in the gay-marriage issue a chance to motivate their base voters and coax swing voters away from the Democrats ahead of this year's elections for governor and U.S. senator. Let's hope that a majority of lawmakers can muster the political nerve to resist the lure of divisiveness.

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