Overnight I have been feeling glum about the new constitutional amendment to forbid gay marriages in Texas. I am not gay, but these preemptive prohibitions bother me, if only because they are so meaningless in the grand scheme of things. Liberals are startled that such intolerant measures are passed by such large margins (72%).
But consider the positive side. This is one of those kneejerk issues that cause pro-marriage people to flock to polling places like zombies in search of fresh brains.
A zombie is a religious zealot who votes on single issues–usually symbolic emotional issues–at the expense of other issues with more impact on the world. An anti-abortion zombie votes for the anti-abortion candidate, while apparently supporting the Iraqi conflict (which resulted in a lot of orphans on both sides) and anti-family policies (job training, education programs and other aid programs).
It’s all done and over, and now the issue is effectively neutralized for future elections. But conservatives need more brains. They need more brains! They need another bugaboo to rile people up with. Wait, how about a constitutional amendment forbidding Satan from owning property in Texas? Or an amendment to outlaw gambling? (Oops, wait, the republicans were for that, weren’t they?)
The real answer, I believe, is to totally disentangle the legal from the religious. Legal protections that accompany marriage are in fact a way of bestowing social advantages on behavior partially motivated by religious beliefs. That’s fine and good, except that it’s not really the state’s business to enshrine religious beliefs. The state defines rights and protections available to all. The church defines rituals and behaviors which are necessary to comply with religious doctrine. More power to them, I say. But you can’t insist on religious criteria for marriage and at the same time insist on civil protections for religious ceremonies. Private organizations have the right to establish discriminatory criteria; public organizations do not.
People feel that marriage and gay relationships do not mix. Under current state law, gays are still eligible for much of these civil protections–provided they hire an attorney. What motives do the prohibitionist’s motivations have; do they intend to make gays ineligible for civil protections as well? Here we encounter the slippery slope; what about atheists? Common law partners? Roommates? Illegal immigrants? Divorcees? Infertile couples? It’s hard in my mind to proscribe one kind of social behavior and then to take no action against certain other kinds of immoral/amoral behavior. Toleration implies consent; we do not consent; therefore, we must not tolerate.
Let’s not blow this issue out of proportion. Just a few years ago sodomy laws were illegal, and the Internet now makes it easy to copy legal agreements. No doubt, some Texas group will offer a marriage contract free for download which offers essentially the same Texas legal protections of a civil marriage license would confer.
Still symbolic issues do matter. They reassure Texans who believe themselves to be moral, and they send a message to nonTexans that certain lifestyles will be met here with intolerance and even scorn (which certainly has economic implications, as Richard Florida has argued. ) Liberals take consolation in two things: first the amendment’s language will probably not withstand judicial scrutiny, and younger generations are much more tolerant. That is not the point. We have defined our state in terms of intolerance. We have shown to the world that the only things we tolerate apparently are unprecedented incarceration rates, inequities in educational expenditures and underfunded health programs.