Monday, February 23, 2004

Civil unions for everyone. The results of the latest Boston Globe poll on gay marriage are disheartening, since they suggest that narrow support has turned into fairly strong antipathy simply because the idea is being debated in public. What had once been a margin in favor of 48 percent to 43 percent is now a pretty substantial 53 percent to 35 percent opposed.

You can be sure wavering legislators are studying those numbers as they ponder what to do when the state constitutional convention resumes on March 11. Unfortunately, it seems likely that the convention will support an amendment restricting marriage to one man and one woman; the only real doubt is whether the amendment will specifically require civil unions.

What's weird is that the battle for marriage rights is moving backward and forward at the same time. Massachusetts may be on the brink of retreat, but the fight has already moved to San Francisco and New Mexico. Chicago mayor Richard Daley has said some supportive things as well.

It's clear, though, that the biggest stumbling block is the word "marriage." And I'm beginning to wonder whether Michael Kinsley has been right all along. Last July, Kinsley wrote a piece for Slate arguing that the government should get out of the marriage business. He wrote:

Let churches and other religious institutions continue to offer marriage ceremonies. Let department stores and casinos get into the act if they want. Let each organization decide for itself what kinds of couples it wants to offer marriage to. Let couples celebrate their union in any way they choose and consider themselves married whenever they want. Let others be free to consider them not married, under rules these others may prefer. And, yes, if three people want to get married, or one person wants to marry herself, and someone else wants to conduct a ceremony and declare them married, let 'em. If you and your government aren't implicated, what do you care?

Now, some of this is too flip. As the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court makes clear in the Goodridge decision, same-sex marriage should be considered a social good precisely because it advances the notion of stable, two-person relationships. But maybe the term we ought to use for any such relationship that receives government sanction is "civil union."

That way, a man and a woman, two men, or two women could register for spousal benefits such as joint health insurance, inheritance rights, Social Security benefits - in short, everything that now comes with marriage. And if they wished to get married, they could seek out an institution that would perform a ceremony and call it marriage.

One of the odder aspects of the current battle is that Catholics, fundamentalist Protestants, and others who hold religious views in opposition to gay marriage wind up dictating to those with completely different religious views. If marriage were entirely a private matter, then a same-sex couple could get married by whichever Unitarian Universalist minister, Reform rabbi, or liberal-minded yacht captain they could find.

No one could order the Catholic Church to perform same-sex marriages, of course. But neither could the Catholic Church order Unitarians not to, which is, in effect, what is happening now. Thus the solution may be a wider separation of church and state.

Globe reviews Little People. The Boston Globe today publishes a favorable review of Little People. The reviewer is Mary Mulkerin Donius, who is herself the mother of a dwarf child.

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