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Same-sex marriage is civil right, not an assault on family

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By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, December 1, 2009

The truth is that if Maj. Nidal Hasan, the accused killer of 13 people at Fort Hood, had entered the officers club there with a nice handbag on his arm, perhaps a Gucci tote, he would have been out of the Army by the end of the week. Since he was merely antisocial, a misfit, an incompetent psychiatrist and a likely Islamic fanatic, he was retained and promoted. This says something about America. On the subject of gays, we are a tad nuts ourselves.

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That irrationality comes at me on an almost daily basis. One of the most prominent and strongly held planks of the Republican Party's right wing -- its only wing, it seems to me -- is opposition to same-sex marriage. I know this from the sheer huffy-and-puffiness of commentators such as Bill O'Reilly.

In a recent column, O'Reilly directed us to read something called "The Manhattan Declaration," which was released late last month by a coalition of conservative Christians -- Catholic and Protestant alike. It makes three points. The first concerns abortion, and it will surprise no one that the signatories oppose it. The third -- I know, I know, I'll get back to No. 2 in a moment -- concerns "Religious Liberty" and the occasional efforts of government to make religious institutions conform with public policy. This is a point worth considering.

No. 2 -- the longest section of the declaration -- applies to same-sex marriage. It amounts to a confession of confusion, a cry by the perplexed who have come to think that same-sex marriage is at the core -- the rotten core -- of much that ails our society. Everything from divorce to promiscuity is addressed in this section without any acknowledgement that same-sex marriage, like all marriage, is a way of containing promiscuity (or at least of inducing guilt) and that not having it would not reduce promiscuity in the least. This I state as a fact.

The declaration calls the out-of-wedlock birth rate the "most telling and alarming indicator" of a collapse of the "marriage culture." Yes. But that collapse occurred long before same-sex marriage became an issue, not to mention a reality, and so one has nothing to do with the other.

It remains true that the family is the single best place to raise children. That being the case, same-sex marriage would serve the same purpose. I know of children raised by same-sex partners and they seem no worse for the experience, although -- O'Reilly beware -- they lack a certain knee-jerk antipathy to gays, lesbians, transsexuals and similar people of dissimilar sexuality.

Some of the declaration is couched in religious terms, and with that I cannot argue. But it is its appeal to common sense that I find so appalling. When it comes to same-sex marriage, the declaration conjures up a future where "polyamorous partnerships, polygamous households, even adult brothers, sisters or brothers and sisters living in incestuous relationships" will be legal. Not likely, but this is not the intent of the movement to legalize same-sex marriage any more than marriage between men and women was supposed to permit Henry VIII to have six wives or for Elizabeth Taylor to have seven husbands, one of them twice.

The reasoning in the declaration is so contorted that it brings to mind the dire warnings from years past of what would happen if blacks and whites were allowed to marry -- not to mention similar references to what the Almighty purportedly intended. This sort of comparison irritates many African Americans who oppose same-sex marriage, but I can see no reason why the civil right extended by the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia (interracial marriage) is any different than the one sought by gays and lesbians. Marriage has certain economic advantages, and to withhold them based on nothing more than religious preference or, at bottom, a certain disgust entrenched in convention, is clearly a civil rights matter.

In the end, the courts will decide this question. That's what they're for. It's doubtful that the voters of Virginia would have allowed Mildred and Richard Loving to tie the knot back in 1967 any more than the public in general approves of same-sex marriage today. Such a legal case, spearheaded by the political odd couple of David Boies and Ted Olson, is likely to reach the Supreme Court in the not-too-distant future. Then, I suspect, wedding bells will ring through the land -- and, after a pause, America will wonder what the fuss was all about.

cohenr@washpost.com


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