One of the most forceful arguments in favor of same-sex marriage is the insistence that gays and lesbians ultimately are fighting a civil-rights battle comparable to the African-American struggle for equal rights.
When framed as a plea for equal rights, the argument carries the day with most fair-minded Americans. We instinctively agree that all citizens deserve equal protection under the law.
Such arguments gain further traction when famous African-American civil-rights leaders, such as U.S. Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., lend their bona fides to the effort. Lewis, the recipient of the 2001 Profile in Courage Lifetime Achievement Award for his heroic participation in the 1961 Freedom Rides, affirms that same-sex marriage is a right and its denial is discrimination.
But other prominent African-American leaders also have spoken on this issue and they do not agree. Take the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III of Boston, co-founder of National TenPoint Leadership Foundation, in which clergy join forces with police teams to foster youth development and reduce inner-city violence. Although a minister, Rivers rests his arguments on historical grounds.
"The issue of marriage is not by definition a civil-rights struggle because the purpose of the civil-rights movement was to correct the systematic abuse of individuals' basic human rights based on a history of systematic abuse from slavery to Jim Crow," says Rivers.
African-Americans were defending themselves against state-approved abuse, including murder, and trying to establish their equal dignity as persons in a country that once held blacks to be not quite human, says Rivers. "There is simply no moral equivalence." No laws are saying that homosexuals don't have human dignity.
Rivers also says that rejection of same-sex marriage is not comparable to earlier prohibitions against blacks marrying whites. "Mixed-race marriages can still produce offspring and do not deny the child a mother and a father. By definition, gay unions deny children of a mother or a father. For that reason, it's wrong."
If this debate were fundamentally about civil rights, we wouldn't be debating marriage. Instead, we'd be discussing what kind of civil arrangements would assure the legal rights and protection of same-sex couples and their children. In fact, such rights already have been granted in Vermont without much national fuss, but apparently that wasn't enough.
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