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.
Beneath the surface of the movement for same-sex marriage is a deeper claim, which is really about etching in tablets of law the assertion that heterosexuality and homosexuality are essentially the same. Should the law choose to recognize this claim, homosexuality will stand in our culture as the functional equivalent of heterosexuality, and all attendant cultural adjustments must follow. This is the equality that is sought.
Furthermore, despite prevailing opinion, marriage isn't a right to be exercised by two individuals. It is a social contract that involves the spouses, their offspring and the state. The state steps in to validate marriage - and to confer certain benefits - precisely because the state has an interest in the well-being of the next generation that the marriage relationship naturally produces.
It's a peculiar moment in human history when one is forced to make a case for Nature, but such has been the success of the same-sex marriage movement. By cloaking their arguments in a veil of civil rights, advocates have created an atmosphere in which defenders of traditional marriage are automatically defined as bigots. I remember when a "bigot" was someone who hated and condemned a person; now it is being recast to condemn those offering a good-faith argument in the public square.
That men and women were intended to bond sexually and that this heterosexual love has the capacity to bestow human life is irrefutable. It also follows that society has an interest in supporting marriage for the careful rearing of children. That children need, deserve and have a right to both a mother and a father - even if fate and human failing prevents it - seems a goal worthy of protection.
At the same time, let the case be made for civil unions that satisfy the legal concerns of same-sex families. But the current wish by some to equate heterosexual and homosexual unions is an emotional plea posing as a civil rights statement. Hijacking the moral authority of the civil-rights movement in order to demand equality of heterosexual and homosexual unions is a piece of sophistry that does no service to the next generation.