Separate But ... Equal? Or: Civil Unions vs. Gay Marriage

Paul Greenberg
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Posted: May 28, 2014 12:01 AM
Separate But ... Equal? Or: Civil Unions vs. Gay Marriage

So there I was, reading a guest article in our newspaper here in Arkansas and nodding not just in agreement but admiration. And why not? For the guest writer was going right down the list of points I'd made over the years in favor of civil unions as an alternative to homosexual marriage.

Well put, I thought. Right on, amen, hallelujah and selah! Few things are as pleasing as seeing one's own opinions repeated by others; they seem even more convincing when their glory is reflected in another's words. Attaway, brother! Ye-e-es!

Such is human vanity, or at least that of newspaper columnists. And then, when everything was going so well, toward the end of this highly satisfying recap of my own positions, came the stunner:

The approach suggested by our newspaper would best be described as 'separate but equal.'

What?! I almost spilled my morning coffee. Separate But Equal? Not even back in the bad old days, when the Faubuses and Fulbrights were doing all their mischief here in Arkansas, whether calling out the National Guard to enforce law and disorder or issuing a Southern Manifesto to put a statesmanlike gloss on defiance of law, some of us would never have used the tainted phrase Separate But Equal in any way but ironically. As in, "Too many Southern school systems, whether black or white, are separate but equally inferior."

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True confession: Troubling as those times were, it was great fun pointing out the absurdities in the segs' case. Few things are so refreshing, and such good wholesome fun, as taking a lonely stand on a great issue, a stand you know is right, whatever derision and even threats it may invite.

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Now, more than half a century later, I now read a guest writer's description of the stand Arkansas' Newspaper has taken on this contentious issue, and I don't recognize it. Yes, we've supported the idea of civil unions for years, but we've also been careful never to describe it as the equal of marriage. Mainly because it isn't.

Yes, civil unions would give homosexual couples certain simple, decent assurances they've been denied entirely too long, like hospital visiting privileges and shared property and estates. But a civil union is most assuredly not the equal of marriage. Nor have we ever pretended otherwise, being careful to express reservations like "much the same" as marriage when advocating civil unions.

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To go back to my time in Dr. Davidson's class in logic at Centenary College of Louisiana so long ago, similar does not mean same. Or even equal. I didn't swallow that line about separate-but-equal when it was being used to defend school segregation back in the Furious Fifties, and I'm not about to swallow it now when it's used to sell a semblance of marriage like civil unions as the real, equal thing.

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Anyone who thinks a civil union is the equal of marriage doesn't understand one or the other or possibly both. To note just a few of their differences: A civil union wouldn't have to be recognized as valid in other states, as a marriage license is. Nor would a civil union be recognized by the federal government, which is now busy changing its rules and regulations and pension benefits piecemeal to meet the needs of homosexual couples. To sum up, civil unions are separate from marriages, all right, but they're scarcely equal.

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Nor should any criticisms I've made of civil unions as a substitute for marriage be confused with criticisms of homosexuals themselves, who, like all of us, are created equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.

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Besides, would anyone really want to make civil unions the equal of marriage? Would we really want to make divorce, especially where children are involved, as simple as dissolving a civil union or domestic partnership, both of which are closer to business agreements than a marriage? And would we really want to force our definition of civil unions here in Arkansas on our neighbors across the state line in Texas or Tennessee, let alone in California or Massachusetts?

One of the great strengths of the American Union is its diversity, so that different states and regions, each with different mores and populations and cultures and histories, can live and flourish together in peace. Surely there is still enough respect for states' rights, however much that term may have been abused in the past, to let each state flourish in its own way.

To force all the other states, let alone the federal government, to accept our definition of a civil union here in Arkansas would be to confuse justice with conformity, and good law with a procrustean uniformity. One Size Fits All doesn't work any better in American law than it does in shoes.

Civil unions are a fine idea whose time has come -- and gone. It went about a decade ago, which is when I first embraced it. Since then, positions have hardened on both sides of the debate over homosexual marriage, and it's no longer a feasible political solution to a deeply divisive issue, more's the pity.

It was a pleasure to run our guest writer's opinion, and I thank him for submitting it. I just wish he'd read our editorials more carefully before writing it. It's still a prudent rule for anyone diving into the vortex of public controversy: Think before writing.