By Benjamin Cole
In late February, David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch co-authored a provocative op-ed in the New York Times, titled “A Reconciliation on Gay Marriage.” In the piece, Blankenhorn, the conservative president of the Institute for American Values, and Rauch, an openly gay scholar at The Brookings Institution and a staunch advocate of same-sex marriage, sought to forge a political compromise to move the contentious debate “onto a healthier, calmer track.”
The Blankenhorn-Rauch compromise proposes a federal recognition of same-sex unions granted at the state level so long as the state licensing the marriage or civil union provides statutory exemptions for religious organizations that do not wish to solemnize or otherwise facilitate those unions.
In short, churches would not be required to provide their facilities and ministers would not have to render their services to homosexual partners who desire marriage.
Not long after Blankenhorn and Rauch published their Times piece, I attended a panel discussion on it, held at Brookings’ headquarters here in Washington. In the discussion, the two discussed their proposal more thoroughly. Responding to them were an attorney from the gay-rights group Human Rights Campaign, a law professor, and a representative of the Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America.
During the conversation, it became immediately obvious that the proposal — at least inasmuch as it was outlined in the op-ed — did not provide answers to all of the many conflicts between religious liberty and gay rights that will result (indeed, that are already resulting) from the legalization of same-sex unions. For instance, what about the conscientious objection of the county clerk who, on religious grounds, feels she cannot issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples? Or what about the licensed caterers and florists who will deny their services for such ceremonies because same-sex marriage violates their religious principles?
The entire discussion, however, missed the fundamental problem with same-sex marriage: Namely, the nature of marriage itself.
The reason that many conservatives do not approve of same-sex marriage is not because we wish to deny basic liberties to gays and lesbians. It is because we do not believe such relationships constitute a marriage by definition. It is a question of ontology rather than ideology.
Offering exemptions to ministers and churches that object does little to resolve the conflict either. No minister has ever been forced to perform ceremonies for heterosexual couples of whose union the church would disapprove. No church has ever been forced to host a reception for such a union. In my own ministry, I’ve refused more requests to perform a marriage than I’ve accepted. My churches have denied our facilities to couples whose relationships did not meet our approval.
Those traditional-marriage advocates who wish to strike a compromise on the issue of same-sex marriage similar to the one proposed by Blankenhorn and Rauch are like the man who feeds the crocodile hoping that it will eat him last.
Such compromises are more aptly labeled capitulations.
I shall never forget the day I read Chief Justice Earl Warren’s opinion for the Supreme Court’s majority in the landmark 1967 interracial-marriage case, Loving v. Virginia. At the time, I was in the Moody Library of Baylor University preparing for a doctoral seminar presentation on the decriminalization of sodomy and the justices’ 2003 reversal of Bowers v. Hardwick, a mid-1980s case out of Georgia in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of state laws prohibiting homosexual acts.
It was probably the best paper I wrote while at Baylor, and probably the most difficult to research. Quite frankly, there are more pleasant things about which to read than criminal reports, statutes and court decisions concerning homosexual sodomy.
When I ran across the Loving decision, I was immediately struck by the way the Court defined marriage as a fundamental right and how the majority opinion — if pressed — could be used as precedent by contemporary proponents of same-sex marriage. Chief Justice Warren wrote:
“The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men…. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.”
The debate about same-sex marriage in this first decade of the 21st century is probably more volatile than the debate about interracial marriage was in the 1960s. Of course, I am in a priori disagreement with any assertion that the fundamental liberty of a man and a woman to marry regardless of their races is similar to the claim that two persons of the same gender deserve licensed state recognition. Apples and oranges, you might say.
In the first instance, the essential ingredient of male and female is present. In the latter, it is not.
Marriage has always been — in every culture and society of human history — a relationship between members of the opposite sex. Even in those cultures and societies where aberrations like polygamy have been accepted, the union of man and woman is essential to the relationship.
The conflict about state recognition of same-sex marriage is not going to be resolved soon. There are those — like Blankenhorn and Rauch — who wish to keep it from rising to the temperature of the abortion debate. If the Court, however, decides the issue similar to the way it ruled in Roe v. Wade, then we are almost certain to enter another long and costly phase of the very culture war that Blankenhorn and Rauch wish to avert.