New Jersey, Gay Marriage, and Southern social conservatism

by Jay Stevens 

Longtime readers of the site know where I stand on the issue of gay marriage: I’m all for it, and largely for the same reasons that Massachusetts Chief Justice Marshall outlined in the court decision there that legalized it:

Marriage also bestows enormous private and social advantages on those who choose to marry. Civil marriage is at once a deeply personal commitment to another human being and a highly public celebration of the ideals of mutuality, companionship, intimacy, fidelity, and family. “It is an association that promotes a way of life, not causes; a harmony in living, not political faiths; a bilateral loyalty, not commercial or social projects.”…Because it fulfils yearnings for security, safe haven, and connection that express our common humanity, civil marriage is an esteemed institution, and the decision whether and whom to marry is among life’s momentous acts of self-definition.

That is, the purpose of marriage is inherently personal and intimate, and is not solely about procreation or to uphold traditional gender roles. And if that’s the case, I just can’t see any moral justification for banning it.

That said, I also recognize that the majority of my fellow Americans and, more specifically, Montanans, disagree. There’s a certain traditional view of marriage that’s inherently wrapped up in religion and that views the very existence of homosexuality as immoral. Sharing the institution of marriage – a cultural ceremony and celebration of family and community – won’t do.

Just as gays are among my friends, family, and neighbors, so are devout Christians. If gays are asking the traditional-minded for a public space to form partnerships and families, it’s only fair for the traditional-minded to ask for some guarantee that their moral system and religious beliefs be free from governmental intrusion.

So, the question is, how can I – and American society – balance belief, individual liberty, diversity, and tradition?

Certainly forcing gay marriage on the electorate through legislative fiat is not the way to go. Most people don’t want gay marriage. Period. Why force it on them? If it’s going to be legalized, it should be done by direct vote in a ballot initiative. When the people are agreeable, it will happen.

On the other hand, the current system is grossly unfair and likely unconstitutional. Many states have special restrictions against gay couples, and gay couples and their families face institutionalized government discrimination. Married heterosexual couples enjoy benefits, taxes, and other special privileges that are denied to gays.

In effect, there are different sets of laws for different people.

The recent New Jersey court decision (pdf), then, seems to be the perfect fit. New Jersey’s Supreme Court fell short of approving gay marriage, but instead ordered the state’s legislature to come up with a civil union package that gives gay couples all the rights and privileges of married heterosexuals.

Unlike the New York and Washington decisions – which were based on the shaky logic that marriage – and sex – is solely for procreative purposes (a decision threatens to roll back the personal freedoms of adult Americans some 75 years), or that it’s a useful tool to encourage those pesky and irresponsible straight couples to marry and take care of their kids – the New Jersey decision recognizes that, while traditional values don’t support gay marriage, American jurisprudence demands that gays are treated equally under the law:

The Domestic Partnership Act has failed to bridge the inequality gap between committed same-sex couples and married opposite-sex couples. Significantly, the economic and financial inequities that are borne by same-sex domestic partners are also borne by their children. Further, even though same-sex couples are provided fewer benefits and rights by the Act, they are subject to more stringent requirements to enter into a domestic partnership than opposite-sex couples entering a marriage.

At this point, the Court does not consider whether committed same-sex couples should be allowed to marry, but only whether those couples are entitled to the same rights and benefits afforded to married homosexual couples. Cast in that light, the issue is not about the transformation of the traditional definition of marriage, but about the unequal dispensation of benefits and privileges to one of two similarly situated classes of people.

The New Jersey court did not find that marriage is necessary to procreation, but did admit that it promotes economic stability and monogamy, both of which have distinct societal benefits, and denying them to gays was detrimental to society and could possibly be injurious to the children of gay couples.

The results of the 2006 gay-marriage initiatives actually demonstrate support for this line of reasoning. Like Glenn Greenwald, I saw in those initiatives the beginning of a push against Southern-based social conservative values in the gay-marriage bans passed in South Dakota, Wisconsin, and Colorado, and especially in the defeat of the anti-gay initiative in Arizona. In the twenty bans previous to 2006, an average of 71 percent approved such bans; this time around, approval was only 52 percent in South Dakota and 56 percent in Colorado. And Arizona – hardly a bastion of liberalism – voted down its ban:

But the defeated Arizona referendum, like the one in South Dakota, would have not only reinforced that gay marriage ban, but would have also barred the recognition by state and local governments of any type of civil unions. As a result, the campaigns to defeat the referendum in both states focused not on the desirability of gay marriage, but rather on the unwarranted limitations imposed by the referendum on the ability of citizens — gay and straight — to secure equal benefits for their chosen relationships.

Put another way, the successful campaign to defeat the Arizona referendum was based on a generalized libertarian aversion to governmental intrusion into the private sphere, rather than support for gay marriage per se.

In this aversion to government intrusion, Greenwald sees the chance for Kos’ “liberal libertarianism” to flourish, as Westerners reject the social engineering program of Southern conservatives and the GOP, and the Democratic Party has the opportunity to step in and become the champion of individual liberties.

Maybe that’s the case. But certainly it seems the New Jersey decision is the best compromise for our communities where gays and Christians and partisan hack bloggers need to live in the same neighborhoods, work at the same jobs, and wrestle with mortgage and insurance payments. The decision erases the legal discrimination against gays, but preserves the tradition and values of the institution of marriage for the traditional-minded.

  1. The voters don’t seem to agree with you.

    As I say now, and have always said, I believe that voters inevitably get the issues right.

  2. That, believe it or not, Eric, was an appeal to authority. But first you had to establish the authority of the voters, so you made the statement that voters inevitably get issues right. In fact they don’t – they can be misled and cajoled by prejudice and emotion. There’s hardly an issue out there that isn’t somehow tainted by fear, hatred and prejudice.

    Anyway, Jack Nicholson doesn’t seem to agree with you, Eric.

    As I say now, and have always said, I believe that Jack Nicholson inevitably gets the issues right.

  3. Eric, FYI, a majority of Americans feel gays should have the right to civil unions.

  4. I just keep seeing gay marriage bans on ballots, and the voters approving of them. This last election cycle, what were there, eight? And all but Arizonas is going into law.

    And Mark, exactly what does Jack Nicholson have to do with anything?

  1. 1 2006 Montana Weblog Awards - The Results!

    […]     You didn’t think I Gave it up, Did you?, Great Falls Firefly – 6    Playground Politics, Rebels Are We – 4    Truly Tragic, A Chicken Is Not Pillage – 4    In My Kitchen, Great Falls Firefly – 3    Do Religious Leaders On The Right Have a Political Agenda?, Wrong Dogs Life Chest – 2    Electability Revisited, A Chicken Is Not Pillage – 2    Breaking The ‘Cone Of Silence’, The Internal Filter – 1    New Jersey, Gay Marriage and Social Conservatism, 4 & 20 Blackbirds – 1    The Secret Reason Why Nobody Writes Good War Stories Anymore, Pop Snark Hooligan – 1    Weekend Coffee, MOTTO – 1    Wherein OCG Makes A Complete Fool Of Herself At Walmart, One Crue Girl – 1 […]

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