The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court decision in favor of gay marriage may have set off a political earthquake, but as a matter of law it was a no-brainer. Recognizing that the state’s Constitution “forbids the creation of second-class citizens,” Chief Justice Margaret Marshall affirmed the “dignity and equality of all individuals” and the “right to marry the person of one’s choice.” Those were the words both pro- and antigay forces had been waiting for.
“This is it–the big breakthrough,” said one veteran of the gay marriage movement, adding that the work has just begun. But before gays and lesbians could uncork the champagne (or, just as likely, argue among themselves over the rightful place of marriage in movement strategy) they were hit with a cascade of hysterical pronouncements, from the Family Research Council’s declaration that “a tyrannical judiciary” is “redefining marriage to the point of extinction,” to George W. Bush’s pledge “to defend the sanctity of marriage.” Will the Christian mission to manufacture an anti-gay marriage backlash work? The right seems to think so, pointing to poll numbers showing a decline in support for gay civil unions in the wake of the Supreme Court’s groundbreaking Lawrence v. Texas “sodomy” decision this past summer.
But if progressives cast the issue in terms of fairness and equal protection, they might be able to pre-empt the backlash. That’s what the leading Democratic presidential contenders have tried to do, without using the m-word, aware that the public still prefers civil unions to gay marriage. They are, however, all on record opposing the push for a gaybaiting constitutional amendment that would override the Massachusetts decision–and that will not necessarily hurt them. Supporters of the amendment have already framed it with shrill rhetoric that could turn off moderates. Perhaps sensing that risk, Bush himself has refrained for the moment from endorsing it.
While we celebrate the Massachusetts decision, it’s worth recalling that the countries that have recognized same-sex marriage–Belgium, Canada and the Netherlands–are social democracies where access to healthcare and other social benefits is not contingent on marriage. Gay marriage passed in those countries without all-out cultural war in part because there was less at stake. The United States would do well to emulate them in more ways than one.