Steve Chapman

To say that gays should have access to civil unions rather than marriage could mean society regards them as unworthy of true matrimony. Or it could mean society sees same-sex unions not as worse or better than marriage but simply different, and thus properly designated by another name.

Which will it be? At this early stage, the only reasonable answer is: We. Don't. Know. And there is only one way to find out: by giving civil unions some time to operate. The Connecticut court, like its Golden State counterpart, pronounced them inadequate without bothering to acquire the valuable knowledge that would flow from a real-world test.

But the question before California voters is not whether the court correctly interpreted the equal protection clause of the state constitution. It is whether gay couples should be deprived of the right to marry that they gained a few months ago. And the best course would be the one spurned by the Supreme Court: to let the new policy remain in effect long enough to judge its value.

It's not as though any heterosexual couple loses anything from the change. And the effect of letting gays wed is bound to be healthy for everyone, since marriage fosters long-term relationships, discourages irresponsible sexual behavior and offers a tested means of protecting children.

Now that gay marriage is in place in California, the public might as well see if it lives up to the promises of supporters or the warnings of opponents. If the latter prove right, there will always be time to pass the sort of measure that is on the ballot this year. And if not, Californians will be glad they held off.

A few state supreme courts have decided they don't need the evidence of experience to make their judgment on same-sex marriage. That's no reason voters should make the same mistake.

Steve Chapman

Steve Chapman is a columnist and editorial writer for the Chicago Tribune.

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