Friday, June 8, 2007

The Inadequacy of Civil Unions

New York Times (Editorial):
The plaintiffs’ argument was laced with references to Plessy v. Ferguson, the U.S. Supreme Court’s notorious 1896 decision which justified racial segregation under a deplorable standard of “separate but equal.” Although startling, the analogy is apt. In establishing civil unions two years ago, Connecticut lawmakers created a separate and inherently inferior institution that continues to deny gay couples the equality they seek and deserve. ...

Saying a civil union is the same as marriage does not make it so. Civil unions are a newly invented category, neither universally recognized nor understood. Connecticut’s claim that the two terms are alike merely underscores the bottom-line question: Why relegate a minority group to a separate category?

The court case has helped stall this issue in Connecticut’s Legislature. But if the ruling goes against the couples involved, the Legislature will have a duty to revisit the matter. A law that allows civil unions but not marriage is preferable to denying benefits and recognition to same-sex couples. But no one should confuse it with equality.

I prefer equality. If I had my druthers, governments would recognize all unions as "civil unions", and leave "marriage" alone. That is politically unrealistic. With that off the table, I'd prefer regarding all unions as '"marriages,", and that may be realistic, whether legislatively or judicially (or by popular votes) in a few jurisdictions. More power to them. May their number increase.

But that is not the case in most of the country, and there are scattered signs that organizing efforts focused on "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships", without the heavy emotive and religious baggage of "marriage", may hold considerably more promise of building popular support and near-term enactment. Acceptance of "marriage" will likely take longer, and will reflect generational changes in social attitudes (which seem to be in process).

The likelihood that legal acceptance of civil unions or domestic partnerships will result in immediate "equal protection" lawsuits will probably kill that organizing strategy.

Measuring the effectiveness of long-term organizing strategies against "stands on principle" can be a tricky business, and I'm not sure there is even a common metric for resolving such debates, even among those who largely share a common objective. Historical perspectives may be illuminating, but different observers may draw different conclusions from such cases as civil and reproductive rights. I've had differences with close friends and political allies on these questions, and remain open to persuasion on the matter.

But it does seem to me the Times editorial is more than usually glib in its failure to reckon with these questions.

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