Thursday, February 12, 2004

The Boston Turmoil: The shouting and the sloganeering over gay marriage went to 11 at the Old State House yesterday -- and that was just the noise the politicians made. (The thousands demonstrating outside had their own say in the wall-to-wall print and broadcast coverage.) Some of the rhetoric is really starting to bother me. For example:
Senator Dianne Wilkerson recalled growing up black in Arkansas, where the public hospital did not allow her mother to deliver her children.

I know the pain of being less than equal and I cannot and will not impose that status on anyone else," a teary-eyed Wilkerson said. "I was but one generation removed from an existence in slavery. I could not in good conscience ever vote to send anyone to that place from which my family fled."

Andrew Sullivan cites this testimony approvingly today, but this kind of rhetoric does nothing more than diminish the civil rights movement with false comparisons. Look, I'm for gay marriage, but this isn't Jim Crow. Not the same thing, not the same principle, not even the same ballpark. In fact, the only reason I think gay marriage passes constitutional muster is that the government has a) taken control of marriage at, generally, the state level; and b) the government has, at several levels, made the institution a determining factor in deciding relative tax burden. If marriage were no more than a religious institution (even with the government, at some level, as recorder thereof), gay couples would clearly have no right to marry. To put it another way, if the government did not use the special relationship of marriage when determining benefits, privileges, or tax rates (which for many years favored not marrying; that's begun to change), I wouldn't be convinced that gay couples deserve marriage.

So, for me, gay marriage wins on a technicality. I don't think it is inherently a basic civil right, as Ms. Wilkinson's tearful performance implied, except for the fact that the government has put its fat thumb on the scales. The best-of-all-worlds solution is for the government to simply remove that thumb, rather than trying to fiddle with the scale so that it appears fair despite the thumb.

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