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Clinging to what's right is never 'extreme'

by Jeremy Hooper

"clinging to extremes can...be quite dangerous"

If said about wars in which two ideologies are fighting for the elimination of the other, then the above quip could probably fit. If uttered in reference to a pair of siblings who have differing views regarding which one of them is a "poopy head," then it might also work. Other potentially apropos scenarios: Overgeneralizing the red state/blue state conflict, debating the worth of American television by comparing a Snuggie infomercial to a particularly delicious episode of "30 Rock," or sizing up situations where one quite literally insists on clinging to something extreme (like a tiger's tail or an icicle jutting from Mt. Everest's highest point). In all of those examples, middle ground might certainly be an asset.

However, some debates are not a matter of two extremely disparate views who need to come together for some moderate chit-chat. In some cases, you have one side that's making a principled push for something they reasonably and rightfully deserve, only to see those efforts thwarted by opposing forces who use fear, straw men, and side points to justify their opposition. One such case? The civil marriage debate, wherein same-sex couples and allies are seeking nothing more than CIVIL fairness under the law, yet constantly have to answer to others' chosen, personal faith views.

Which takes us back to the quip cited above. It's pulled from an Op-Ed that ran in The New York Times over the weekend, in which writers David Blankenhorn (anti-marriage Picture 11-112equality) and Jonathan Rauch (pro-marriage equality) come together to present what they see as a a marriage "reconciliation." So what does that mean, exactly? Well, essentially they've jointly come up with a federal civil unions system for same-sex couples in exchange for some added faith-based guarantees:

It would work like this: Congress would bestow the status of federal civil unions on same-sex marriages and civil unions granted at the state level, thereby conferring upon them most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage. But there would be a condition: Washington would recognize only those unions licensed in states with robust religious-conscience exceptions, which provide that religious organizations need not recognize same-sex unions against their will. The federal government would also enact religious-conscience protections of its own. All of these changes would be enacted in the same bill.

Hmm. Okay. We will now look at their subsequent arguments, as well as make a few a lot of our own:

Whatever our disagreements on the merits of gay marriage, we agree on two facts. First, most gay and lesbian Americans feel they need and deserve the perquisites and protections that accompany legal marriage. Second, many Americans of faith and many religious organizations have strong objections to same-sex unions. Neither of those realities is likely to change any time soon.

Okay, let's actually stop here. Already we have a problem with this setup, because it presents the key disagreement of the marriage equality fight in a completely unfair way. Yes, most gays and lesbians feel that they need protection, and yes many religious people object to the same. But the problem begins right here, because it acts as if these two positions hold equal footing. In reality, they do not. When talking about civil marriage equality, we are talking about a state-recognized contract. One's personal religious convictions are simply not in equal play! Or, at least, they shouldn't be.

To see this, look no further than a pair of hetero atheists. It would be safe to say that most religious opponents of same-sex marriage have strong objections towards the godless. And, as per their beliefs, preachers have every right to refuse to perform their religious ceremony, be it a marriage, bris, baptism, or choir sing off. However, these same people of faith do not have a right to stand in the way of this same couple's civil marriage, hospital circumcision, public swimming, or "American Idol" audition! So to be perfectly frank: Anytime a position paper puts anti-marriage religious conviction on perfectly equal footing with pro-marriage civil discourse, we do a bit of a facepalm (and lose a bit of respect for the piece as a whole).

Moving on:

Further sharpening the conflict is the potential interaction of same-sex marriage with antidiscrimination laws. The First Amendment may make it unlikely that a church, say, would ever be coerced by law into performing same-sex wedding rites in its sanctuary. But religious organizations are also involved in many activities outside the sanctuary. What if a church auxiliary or charity is told it must grant spousal benefits to a secretary who marries her same-sex partner or else face legal penalties for discrimination based on sexual orientation or marital status? What if a faith-based nonprofit is told it will lose its tax-exempt status if it refuses to allow a same-sex wedding on its property?

Cases of this sort are already arising in the courts, and religious organizations that oppose same-sex marriage are alarmed. Which brings us to what we think is another important fact: Our national conversation on this issue will be significantly less contentious if religious groups can be confident that they will not be forced to support or facilitate gay marriage.

Here again, we have church fears and desires casually tossed around as if they, in terms of American government, are interchangeable with testaments toward civil fairness. And once again the tone suggests that just because churches desire something, that they are automatically deserved of it. That's a very dangerous concept. And not only for LGBT people, but also for any group that might at any time find themselves within cross-wielding crosshairs.

Again, we haven't one ounce of desire to ever force churches, synagogues, or mosques to perform same-sex unions if they don't wish to do so. There's no organized push within the LGBT community for forced rituals, and most honest scholars on both sides would tell you that the chances of this becoming a contentious point are slim to none. However, this doesn't mean that faiths should have unfettered ability to discriminate in other areas. Take, for instance, the nonprofit building example: By what right can a church rent out a certain facility to heterosexual couples of any faith or background, yet refuse the same to a same-sex couple (like we've seen in NJ)? By what right can they discriminate against one certain minority and still claim tax-exempt status? And if they can, where does THAT end? The article's arguments are based around the church's freedom -- but where do you draw the line if you tell a church that any entity in which they have a hand is free to discriminate? Why is recognition of civil fairness the slippery slope, yet the ability to single out a certain group the norm?!?

Moving on to an outline of our community's supposed concerns:

Gay couples have concerns of their own. Most, of course, want the right to marry, and nothing less. But federal recognition of same-sex marriage — leave aside what you think about the merits — is not likely in the near future. The federal Defense of Marriage Act forbids it. Barack Obama and most other Democratic presidential candidates opposed gay marriage. And most Americans continue to oppose it.

At the same time, federal law links many important perquisites to marital status, including Social Security survivor benefits, tax-free inheritance, spousal immigration rights and protections against mutual incrimination. All of these benefits are currently denied to same-sex couples, even those living in states that permit same-sex marriage or civil unions. But these same benefits could be conferred by federally recognized civil unions.

Yes, most gays are opposed to the idea that religious organizations could openly treat same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples differently, without fear of being penalized by the government. But we believe that gays can live with such exemptions without much difficulty. Why? Because most state laws that protect gays from discrimination already include some religious exemptions, and those provisions are for the most part uncontroversial, even among gays.

Okay, first off: Yes, we still have work to do to get the president and the American public fully on our side. But you know how not to do that? By ceding ground on a matter that we know within our loving hearts and learned minds is nothing short of right! That would be to our movement's great peril. Especially when you consider that we, despite our setbacks, have made CONSIDERABLE gains in the past few years (with more potentials in the near-to-immediate pipe).

As for gays' ability to "live with such exemptions without much difficulty"? Well of course we probably COULD live with a separate and unequal system. We could also live in a cave by a river on a diet of berries and river water, but we don't plan on doing so anytime soon. Why? Because we only eat organic blackberries and drink Saratoga Springs filtered water we are entitled to the same sort of life and liberty as everyone else! Yes, it would be great to shore up rights -- but at what cost? By suffering the indignity of getting in a separate line at the CIVIL licensing bureau than our tax-paying hetero friends? Is that a historical picture that we really want to commit to the history books?

Oh, and comparing the ability to live with religious exemptions in terms of legal unions with our current ability to deal with the same sort of exemptions in terms of discrimination laws is a misappropriation. The latter typically allow churches to staff up their outfits with only like-minded individuals, while the former would allow them to staff an entire federal system with their like-minded views regarding what constitutes a constitutionally acceptable couple. One allows them to keep their personal world within the tenets of their faith, while the other foists those same tenets onto the CIVIL world at large. That distinction matters greatly.

Let's press on:

And while most Americans who favor keeping marriage as it has customarily been would prefer no legal recognition of same-sex unions at either the federal or the state level, we believe that they can live with federal civil unions — provided that no religious groups are forced to accept them as marriages. Many of these people may come to see civil unions as a compassionate compromise. For example, a PBS poll last fall found that 58 percent of white evangelicals under age 30 favor some form of legal same-sex union.

Again, catering to both bias and straw men. "Bias," obviously, in setting up a separate system of rights. "Straw men," in regards to the argument that any church would ever be forced to perform a marriage ritual.

Telling churches that they won't be forced to perform the ancillary religious rituals that may or may not be coupled with our couplings is not a proviso that we need offer up. We have test cases in the millions of straight couples who have or would be denied the same for a host of reasons (preciously divorced, atheist couple, interfaith couple, non-member couple, bride wants to come nude, etc.). Like all religious rites, these matters are to be left to the churches.

Okay, let's wrap this mother up:

Linking federal civil unions to guarantees of religious freedom seems a natural way to give the two sides something they would greatly value while heading off a long-term, take-no-prisoners conflict. That should appeal to cooler heads on both sides, and it also ought to appeal to President Obama, who opposes same-sex marriage but has endorsed federal civil unions. A successful template already exists: laws that protect religious conscience in matters pertaining to abortion. These statutes allow Catholic hospitals to refuse to provide abortions, for example. If religious exemptions can be made to work for as vexed a moral issue as abortion, same-sex marriage should be manageable, once reasonable people of good will put their heads together.

In all sharp moral disagreements, maximalism is the constant temptation. People dig in, positions harden and we tend to convince ourselves that our opponents are not only wrong-headed but also malicious and acting in bad faith. In such conflicts, it can seem not only difficult, but also wrong, to compromise on a core belief.

But clinging to extremes can also be quite dangerous. In the case of gay marriage, a scorched-earth debate, pitting what some regard as nonnegotiable religious freedom against what others regard as a nonnegotiable human right, would do great harm to our civil society. When a reasonable accommodation on a tough issue seems possible, both sides should have the courage to explore it.
A Reconciliation on Gay Marriage [NY Times]

No, no, no, no, no. And we deeply resent the idea that either our opposition to this plan or our staunch support of rights that we see as already ours by virtue as our role within the citizenry makes us hot headed backers of "scorched-earth" ideas. And we also resent that in their call for "reconciliation," these two are actually painting with extremely broad strokes -- extremist vs. extremist. The reality is that marriage equality has support from liberals, progressives, moderate conservatives, the politically neutral, etc. And we're just going to come out and say it: The opposition is, by and large, fueled by religious fundamentalism that should not really even be in play in this debate!

Now, we of course aren't denying that there are many other types of people who resist marriage equality (many with a "D" next to their name). But the reality is that the organized anti-marriage equality movement -- the ones who run the campaigns, bring the major financing, create the ads, debate on the shout shows -- are, with little exception, far-right religious conservatives who resist just about every single proposal that would give LGBT people a better life. Hell, many of them promote "ex-gay" programs that seek to "change" gays!!!! So what we are talking about is a CLEAR difference between the two movements.

Our organized opposition wants religious freedom, while we want the freedom to have our civil rights without answering to a set of faith beliefs to which we may or may not even subscribe.

Our organized opposition wishes to define marital righteousness by virtue of "tradition," while we are trying to combat the tradition of inequality that has kept us form taking part.

Our organized opposition says they are out to "protect families," even though they are pushing for policies that keep our families more vulnerable.

They seek to inject bias into our government's most precious governing documents, while we resist tyrannical misuse of misguided popular opinion.

There is a conversation because we gay folks realized that we two are American citizens. But there is a "war" only because other people stepped in and said, "No way, 'mo-gay!"

So in summation: This is not a situation with "two extremes." No, no -- this is a situation in which one organized movement is just far too extreme!


*But again, we aren't saying all marriage inequality proponents are "extreme." We are speaking about the "pro-marriage" movement itself

*Oh, and it should also be noted that many political figures oppose marriage equality politically ONLY because the opposition still holds a majority. We have on good word that more than a few are with us in spirit, but can't be publicly because of polling. This merits a mention, because it too falls back on our opposition's shoulders.

*The confusion in this country in regards to civil vs. religious marriage seems to stem from the fact that we afford ministers the right to solemnize civl marriages and give church ceremonies the ability to stand in as a state ceremony. Now, there are some who would seek to separate the two completely and make couples have a state ceremony performed civilly, and keep the church faith-based a purely religious rite. We're not going to get into that debate. However, it is IMPERATIVE that we show people that even though churches and faith leaders do have the ability to stand-in for the state, they are already a non-essential component to civil marriage equality. Even now.

**UPDATE: And now Tony Perkins shows us even more reasons why we CANNOT GIVE AN INCH to those who wish to keep us legal strangers!

**UPDATE 2: RNC chair Michael Steele lets us know that for their side, civil unions aren't on the table anyway: Steele-ing Fairness [G-A-Y]

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Your thoughts

This is all very easy for gays in more liberal states to say than it is for those of us in places like say Virginia. True, you may not have legal same-sex marriage or civil unions yet in New York, Jeremy, but your pending nuptials will be recognized even though they have to be performed out of state. We have zilch in Virginia. No same-sex marriage. No civil unions or even limited domestic partnerships. Nothing like ENDA. Etc. I will gladly take this "compromise" to make some movement forward than wait the 50 years it will take to get everything so others can feel morally clean. Screw that. This "compromise" does not mean at all that the fight is over and a "separate but unequal" system will last forever. What it would mean though is that at least we get SOMETHING in the meantime instead of continuing with nothing at all. Heck, if anything this could make the "normalization" of gays in society move forward even faster.

Posted by: John | Feb 23, 2009 8:24:58 AM

As usual, when talking about religious freedom and the ability of churches to define marriage on their own terms, the conveniently forget, WE ARE ALREADY OFFERING THOSE THINGS. And as usual, they expect us to compromise, yet don't offer to give anything up themselves. Just more proof that we are winning.

Posted by: RainbowPhoenix | Feb 23, 2009 10:20:06 AM

Excellent analysis, but you forget the biggest "straw man" in the religious anti-gay argument -- that all churches are the same! It is implicit in their argument that Christianity and gay rights are incompatible. So how come I can go to the United Church, the Unitarian, and some Episcopalian churches or Synagogues, and get religiously married? They never go there, because it would reveal the truth -- if we are to treat citizens equally, gay marriage is logically INEVITABLE.

1) You grant civil marriage and let churches refuse to marry people. You still gat gay marriage.
2) You call the civil status "civil unions" and let churches define marriage as they will. You still get gay marriage.

The ONLY "scorched earth" policy is from the zero-tolerance "Christians" who are against gay marriage come Hell or high water.

Posted by: Strepsi | Feb 23, 2009 10:45:24 AM

Wow! That was fantastic! You made great arguments against that piece. PLEASE say that you wrote a letter to the NY Times in response to it!

Posted by: Phil | Feb 23, 2009 11:22:10 AM

Strepsi: That is very true. We would be well served if we could band together people of other faiths to maybe not stand FOR our marriage equality, but to at least stand against the evangelicals attempts to fosit one certain faith view.

John: As one who was reared in rural TN, I am sensitive to that issue. Very much so. And I'm not going to sugarcoat it: If given a choice between only the presented "reconciliation"and waiting for full marriage equality, the latter would most likely deny justice longer to the rural states. But I don't think you can look at this matter in those terms. You have to look at right vs. wrong. Taking a stand vs. capitulating. Refusing to be denied vs. accepting disease-ridden blankets. And for all of the reasons cited in the post and more, I see no way that I, in good conscience, can accept what is presented. More importantly, I would argue that our MOVEMENT can't.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Feb 23, 2009 11:47:13 AM

I have to say I agree with John. I grew up in VA but I know that I can never move back until it moves out of the dark ages. But, even before I can begin to think about where I want to live in the US I have to think about whether I can stay in the US. For someone like me, in a binational relationship(she's Guatemalan so there is no hope for us to live happily ever after there) time is of the essence and I can't wait for the world to change. I have no idea what will happen when I graduate medical school because I don't know where the fight for equality will be. If the fundies were to accept a compromise like this, then I have to say I would take it and run.

Posted by: Kara | Feb 23, 2009 11:57:34 AM

So much for unity then, Jeremy. I'm not about to sign on to something that only benefits gays in liberal states while the rest of us continue to be forgotten and screwed over. I'll take the compromise and we can work together for something better afterwards.

Posted by: John | Feb 23, 2009 12:51:53 PM

"So much for unity then, Jeremy. I'm not about to sign on to something that only benefits gays in liberal states while the rest of us continue to be forgotten and screwed over."

Please do not accuse me of seeking anything less that unity. That is unfair and you know it (or at least should). I fight for us ALL every single day of my life. And as already stated, I am deeply affected by/concerned about red state biases. I may be a New Yorker, but my family is mostly still in the south. The issues I have with them in terms of my marriage could fill a book.

The fact is that marriage equality does not only benefit that state where we achieve it. Every state victory takes us ALL a step closer to achieving what we deserve. Nobody is "forgetting" anyone. But the reality is that we have to win where we can win. And in states where we can't yet win, we have to keep laying the groundwork for our full equality.

I don't think you can look at this suggested reconciliation as it would apply to any one state. You have to look at it on its merits, the same way you would have had to look at a suggested "reconciliation" on something like interracial marriage. If it's wrong it's wrong.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Feb 23, 2009 1:03:24 PM

I, personally, have no problem whatever with the religious being entirely free to hate-on gays. They've been doing it forever, and as long as it is confined to their pulpits, hey, it's a free country. And as far as that goes, I doubt that anyone has a problem with it. They're going to hate us, and we're going to ignore them like we do the great aunt with Alzheimer's who screams profanities at the neighbors. Though, I have to admit that at least she provides some comic relief.

But any attempt by the religious to extend the range of their bigoted and discriminatory ways outside of their purely religious edifices should give pause to any- (and every-) one. The "abortion" comparison to "same-sex" marriage is tantamount to saying that religious hospitals could (hypothetically) refuse to offer ANY services to gay and lesbian couples. Hospitals are not churches, even if they are owned by churches, but with this "compromise" those hospitals (which receive millions of tax payer dollars and special tax exemptions) could refuse services to us simply because we are gay.

And even beyond that, religious organizations have spread their reach into many other secular arenas, any of which could deny services to us which in many cases would currently be illegal. I rented a flat in San Francisco which was owned by St. Mary's Hospital. If this sort of "compromise" were enacted, St. Mary's Hospital could have refused to allow me to rent that flat - which otherwise would have been perfectly illegal. They could purchase any building where LGBT couples have resided for years, and evict them because they are gay - in California today, that is perfectly illegal.

Any bigot anywhere could "donate" a minority interest in their business / building / public accommodation to a religious group, and then (by virtue of that minority stake in the ownership) deny services to LGBTs.

Religious schools which receive hundreds of millions of dollars in federal and state tax monies, could refuse to hire LGBTs or to offer any services to us - and in many cases today, that is illegal.

And, where does it stop... This kind of compromise is just exactly what the religious hope beyond all hope for. It is a special exemption for the religious bigotry that would never stop at just their ability to continue to hate us, but could fester into a disease that allows anyone anywhere to discriminate not only against us, but potentially against anyone.

With Federal ENDA and inclusive Hate-Crimes legislation writing on the proverbial wall, it isn't any wonder that the religious would extend an "olive branch" disguising a Trojan Horse in the name of a compromise. Don't buy it! Everyone loses if we do.

Posted by: Dick Mills | Feb 23, 2009 1:44:01 PM

I'm not a lawyer, but it seems that whenever and wherever the quest for equality was pursued in the courts, I think there was no choice but to go after marriage. I don't think there would be any legal basis to sue for equality by asking for civil unions, because civil unions didn't exist for anyone. How would you sue for second class status when everyone else is first class? Of course, with legislation you can ask for anything you want.

I happen to think that, at this point in time, we are further along on the road to equality than if we had slowly and methodically pursued civil unions or marriage legislatively. I realize that we may have avoided all the state constitutional amendments, but I think they represent the last gasps of our opponents. Although the court battles have enraged so many people, they have forced prominent coverage in the mainstream media, and when that happens, we usually win. Harvey Milk often spoke of our being invisible as one of the biggest impediments to our quest for civil rights. We have become a lot more visible, and people are learning that we are not strange creatures living on the fringes of society, in the shadows, in the closet, and out of sight. Even if many individuals are still closeted, especially in the hellholes of the nation, people are getting to know us via the media.

Posted by: Richard Rush | Feb 23, 2009 1:45:20 PM

Agreed, Dick and Richard.

Posted by: G-A-Y | Feb 23, 2009 1:58:26 PM

We all need to understand that the concept of "compromise" doesn't really exist for the Religious Right (RR). If they agree to a compromise proposed by non-RRs, it only means they have found a loophole that they can exploit (as stated well by Dick Mills). If the RRs propose a compromise, then we can assume it is a Trojan Horse.

We will never find common ground with RR people. Recently there appeared to be some common ground with the Mormons when they said that their only problem was with marriage, and that they could support some basic protections for gays. When Equality Utah called their bluff, not only was there no common ground, we learned that they would deny us even the most rudimentary consideration as human beings.

Posted by: Richard Rush | Feb 23, 2009 3:11:25 PM

Dick Mills makes an excellent point. The far-reaching implications of this 'compromise' are beyond scary. We have equality on our side. We live in a country that has a long tradition of doing right by people through civil rights, even if it takes awhile. To accept this garbage would be to tell the world that they have to treat us as equals... if they feel like it. Tell them, 'fine', don't be the ones to marry us. But let them know in no uncertain terms that we will not stand by and let them evict us, let them fire us, or let them do anything that treats us like anything less than the first class citizens we are.

Posted by: Phil | Feb 23, 2009 3:14:37 PM

The more I read these American blogs, the more I feel I really ought to get politically active here in Ireland.

The Green Party (a minority partner in the coalition government) is in favour of full marriage equality. Perhaps I'll join. I like most of their other policies too.

I think I'll write Brian Cowen (who happens to be my local representative, as well as the Prime Minister) a letter on the subject.


Posted by: Timothy (TRiG) | Feb 24, 2009 12:31:15 PM

The first commenter needs to read the Blankenhorn/Rauch piece carefully. What will it give you in Virginia?

Nada. Zilch. Nothing.

Some compromise, huh?

What Blankenhorn/Rauch are proposing is to drop DOMA for a less-restrictive DOMA on the federal level, applicable only if states adopt limits to rights of same-sex couples in a legally recognized union. It doesn't create anything at a state level. There's no assurance that there'd be anything that Virginia would have to accept.

I'll grant this: Blankenhorn seems sincere in his views that same-sex couples need the same legal protections as opposite-sex couples. He just needs to realize that we call that packet of laws "marriage."

Rauch, on the other hand, has written at length at how the "anything but marriage" options only weaken marriage for everyone. I've encountered heterosexual men who are bothered that they can't get domestic partnerships with their female partners. See, we created a stopgap for gay people and now the straight people want in. I don't know why Rauch would support this.

Besides, as he's pointed out, once you create a new form of relationship, there's no reason to keep opposite-sex couples out of it. That'd be discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. But then you'd end up with two options for opposite-sex couples and only one for same-sex couples. Way to go, equality!

Well, as other posts have pointed out, other than Blankenhorn, the opponents to same-sex marriage are even less interested in this compromise as the supporters of same-sex marriage.

Posted by: John D | Feb 24, 2009 2:31:10 PM

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