The San Francisco weddings

Posted: Feb 18, 2004 12:00 AM

Officials in San Francisco are engaged in an act of civil disobedience of stunning hubris. Buoyed by a Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruling that ordered the legislature in that state to allow homosexuals to marry, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom last week ordered city officials to begin issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples, in open contravention of state law. In the first four days, the city issued more than 2,000 such licenses.

But voters in California rejected gay marriage by nearly a two-to-one margin just four years ago, when 61 percent voted in favor of Proposition 22, a ballot initiative that said: "Only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California." If a handful of city officials can circumvent the will of the people -- as expressed in a state law passed by the majority of California voters -- can anarchy be far behind?

Gay rights activists claim that granting same-sex couples the right to marry is simply a matter of equity and fairness. They reject the notion that there is anything radical about their demand or that it would do harm to the institution of marriage itself. They frequently compare prohibitions on same-sex marriage to anti-miscegenation laws that prohibited interracial couples from marrying in some states until the U.S. Supreme Court struck them down as unconstitutional in 1967 in Loving v. Virginia.

But the comparisons are fatuous. Allowing men and women of different races to marry in no way threatens the institution itself, but same-sex unions require a fundamental redefinition of marriage. No society since the dawn of civilization had ever even contemplated institutionalizing same sex-unions until the late 20th Century (and to this date, only two countries recognize gay marriage: the Netherlands and Belgium).

If the courts uphold San Francisco's flagrant violation of the law, what possible rational basis will there be from denying all sorts of other unconventional -- and most would argue, immoral -- unions? If two men or two women may marry, what rational -- as opposed to normative or moral -- basis is there to reject the union of one man with several women, or several men, for that matter, or any other combination of multiple partners? Many societies and some religions -- most notably Islam -- allow a man to take more than one wife. If the "right" to marry can encompass two persons of the same sex, on what basis can that "right" be denied to multiple partners?

On what basis could the "right" to marry be denied persons who happen to be closely related by blood? Taboos against incest are as old as civilization itself. But then so were taboos against homosexuality. If two men have the right to marry, what rational basis is there to deny that same right to a brother and a sister who want to do so, or a father and daughter, for that matter, so long as both are adults?

Make no mistake, gay marriage will fundamentally alter the institution itself, rendering it virtually meaningless. Some gay rights activists have been more open and honest about their aims. Jonathan Katz, the executive director of the Larry Kramer Initiative for Gay and Lesbian Studies at Yale University (named for the founder of the confrontational gay rights group ACT-UP) admitted on National Public Radio's "Talk of the Nation" this week that gay marriage "would revolutionize the institution of marriage itself. The advent of lesbian and gay marriage might, in fact, serve to not only reinvigorate but to redefine an institution that is increasingly viewed by many in our culture as having outlived its usefulness."

Perhaps Mr. Katz believes that marriage has outlived its usefulness, but most Americans do not. The United States has the highest marriage rate of any nation, according to the United Nations' Bulletin of Statistics. If marriage is going to be redefined, shouldn't the American people have some say in it? Voters or their representatives in state legislatures in some 38 states have made it clear that they want to restrict marriage to the union of one man and one woman. In a democracy, those votes should count for something, the defiant acts of San Francisco's mayor notwithstanding.