A civil solution to same-sex marriage angst

February 20, 2012 12:00 am

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Hard on the heels of the free contraception controversy comes news on another "culture war" battlefront: same-sex marriage. The conflict could roil the 2012 presidential campaign and test national civility for years to come. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Gov. Christine Gregoire signed a bill last Monday making Washington the seventh state to legalize gay marriage. But on Friday in New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie vetoed a bill passed by the Democratic-controlled Legislature that would have made his state the eighth.

Instead, the eighth state to legalize same-sex marriage may soon be Maryland, where former vice president Dick Cheney reportedly lobbied Republican state legislators to help pass the bill Friday -- a similar version of which passed the state senate last year.

While the Obama administration's not-really-revised policy on faith-based institutions and "free" contraception trained a spotlight primarily on the Roman Catholic Church, the ongoing debate on same-sex marriage cuts across religious and political lines. Govs. Gregoire and Christie, for instance, are both Catholic, but Mr. Cheney is Methodist; Ms. Gregoire is a Democrat, but the two men are Republicans.

With allegiances on the matter often unpredictable and with 30 states having passed constitutional amendments defining marriage as heterosexual only, plenty of conflict is yet to come. If the nation is lucky, many citizens will soon conclude that both sides in this particular conflict are wrong.

There is an alternative approach to the issue -- an approach that avoids unequal legal status on one hand and religious oppression on the other. The discussion in New Jersey -- and experience in California and D.C. -- together point the way.

With his veto, Mr. Christie made two interesting proposals: that citizens decide, via statewide ballot, whether to permit same-sex marriage and that the Legislature, in the meantime, appoint a "strong ombudsman for civil unions."

The Garden State already offers civil unions to same-sex couples, but a review commission has found the law less than effective, and several couples have sued, contending it does not deliver the "marriage equality" that the state Supreme Court had mandated.

While demonstrating problems with how the civil union law is put into practice is certainly a strong strategy, the point of a same-sex marriage bill is that no matter how carefully civil unions are observed, a "separate but equal" approach to marriage is not, in the end, equal at all.

First Published 2012-02-19 23:11:52

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