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Bay state civil unions debate

By W. James Antle III
web posted June 20, 2005

Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, perhaps with an eye toward the 2008 presidential race, has reignited the Bay State’s stagnant gay-marriage debate. Last week, he abandoned the constitutional amendment being considered by the legislature to endorse a grassroots effort to roll back same-sex marriage in the commonwealth without creating civil unions.

Instead of simultaneously repealing the Massachusetts’ Supreme Judicial Court’s Goodridge revolution and introducing a new “marriage lite,” this proposal would allow voters an up or down vote on gay marriage without having to decide the issue of civil unions. Backers need to gather the signatures of 66,000 registered voters this fall and win the support of one-fourth of the legislature in two successive sessions to make it onto the ballot in 2008. According to the Boston Globe, Romney described it as a “clean, straightforward, unambiguous amendment.” It’s also the kind of amendment with a track record of success in 11 states during the 2004 elections.

For Romney, this is something of a reversal. Last year, the legislature met in a constitutional convention to vote on an amendment that would reaffirm marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The votes to stop the redefinition of marriage without also offering civil unions weren’t there. When Democratic Senate President Robert Travaglini and Senate Minority Leader Brian Lees offered a compromise amendment including civil unions, at least 22 Republicans in the state House of Representatives revolted. Romney’s lobbying persuaded 15 of them to back the compromise amendment, which passed by just five votes.

Neither side was ever completely happy with the compromise, which must be approved again by the legislature in a constitutional convention this fall. If it clears the convention a second time, the amendment will appear on the statewide ballot in 2006. Some marital traditionalists fear that it will be difficult to motivate like-minded voters with such thin gruel. This is why pro-family groups have proposed an alternative measure.

But there are pitfalls in the strategy Romney and the commonwealth’s beleaguered social conservatives have adopted. Gay marriage has not existed in any of the states that have to date approved defense-of-marriage amendments; by the time this amendment would be before the Massachusetts electorate, same-sex matrimony will have been a legal reality in the commonwealth for more than four years and the Goodrige decision itself will be nearly five years old.

Many people are willing to vote to see the traditional understanding of marriage protected by law. But fewer may be willing to vote for what could plausibly be described as taking away benefits their neighbors have already been given.

Second, the rival amendment could cause conservatives in the legislature to defect from the compromise already underway. There is no guarantee that even this weakened defense-of-marriage amendment will be approved by the state’s voters. If civil-unions opponents join together with gay-marriage supporters in this fall’s constitutional convention, marriage will not be on the ballot in 2006 and marital traditionalists will have to take their chances with a more conservative amendment two years further down the road.

How we who believe in traditional marriage handle civil unions will be important to the outcome of this debate. In the June 6 issue of National Review, Ramesh Ponnuru advocates a “fourth option” – extending benefits to people living in a variety of arrangements not limited to homosexual relationships.

Ponnuru’s article concedes too much. It should be made clear that the logic and purpose of marriage is rooted in the need to channel the sexuality of an overwhelmingly heterosexual society in ways that protect the children that sex between men and women alone can produce. Without acknowledging this fact, even nonsexual civil unions appear to be an unprincipled compromise that will do little to calm the marriage debate.

Traditional marriage advocates would nevertheless do well to recast their campaigns as an effort to uphold shared social norms that benefit all Americans rather than a conspiracy to deny people hospital visitation rights. To the extent that benefits can be conferred upon non-married couples, including gays and lesbians, without undermining these norms, traditionalists should not reflexively oppose doing so.

The organization sponsoring a defense-of-marriage amendment without civil unions in Massachusetts, VoteonMarriage.org, implicitly recognizes this in a statement on its website: “Any two persons who are dependent on each other deserve basic benefits, but to award these benefits based on sexual orientation is discriminatory.” The key to the marriage debate is to explain why traditional matrimony is not.

Romney and company face an uphill battle, but this much is clear: If traditionalists can prevail in this argument in Massachusetts, they can do so anywhere.

W. James Antle III is an assistant editor of The American Conservative and a senior editor for Enter Stage Right. The views expressed above represent his alone.

Other related stories: (open in a new window)

  • Traditionalists must revise gay marriage lexicon by W. James Antle III (July 19, 2004)
    Being successful in cultural battles relies heavily on how effectively language is used and W. James Antle III says marriage traditionalists are losing the war
  • A possible alternative to the federal marriage amendment by W. James Antle III (July 12, 2004)
    Conservatives often respond to a decision by an activist judiciary by calling for a constitutional amendment. W. James Antle III says there might be an easier way to reign one of the branches of government
  • Vermont's fight over same sex civil unions by Steven Martinovich (February 9, 2004)
    He thought it was more than a little biased but Steven Martinovich found Civil Wars: The Battle for Gay Marriage an interesting account of the legal and political fight to establish civil unions in Vermont


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