Sunday, May 25, 2008

America solidly divided on issue of gay marriage

Previously published in Terre Haute Tribune Star, 5/25/08

Finally, gay rights advocates and conservative and religious groups have something in common: a week both could describe as “the best of times, the worst of times.”

On May 7, the Michigan Supreme Court ruled “that the state’s ban on gay marriage makes it illegal for public universities and other entities of state government to provide domestic partner benefits to the partners of gay employees.” Stung/elated from that ruling, a week later, the California Supreme Court “struck down the state’s ban on same-sex marriage … in a broadly worded decision that would invalidate virtually any law that discriminates on the basis of sexual orientation.”

According to the Los Angeles Times, “Conservative and religious-affiliated groups denounced the decision and pledged to bring enough voters to the polls in November to overturn it. Mathew Staver, founder of Liberty Counsel, called the decision “outrageous” and “nonsense.” Staver continues: “No matter how you stretch California’s Constitution, you cannot find anywhere in its text, its history or tradition that now, after so many years, it magically protects what most societies condemn.” (Strange that a group with “Liberty” in its name denounces a ruling that increases personal liberty.)

Those displeased with the Michigan ruling sounded similar themes starting with the dissenting justices: Marilyn Kelly and Michael Cavanagh wrote, “it is a perversion of the amendment’s language to conclude that, by voluntarily offering the benefits at issue, a public employer recognizes a union similar to marriage.”

These contradictory rulings might suggest a deepening division in the country over the issue of “gay marriage” in particular and the civil rights of gays and lesbians in general. Is this another wedge issue for the United States similar to the way abortion has been for several decades?

I raise the example of abortion because, in many ways, pro-life activists stem from similar groups as do activists defending marriage as a union between one man and one woman. Surveys of public opinion, however, suggest that the status quo for abortion is likely to continue while the status quo for gay rights is likely to move toward greater acceptance and reduction in status discrimination.

Public opinion on abortion has changed little since the first surveys following the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. There are passionate minorities on both sides of the abortion divide. The majority, however, is muddled, stuck in the middle, trying to find the right balance. I see the U.S. as maintaining the right to choose but with restrictions, which is fitting given where public opinion has been on this issue for the last 35 years. People’s views on abortion do not vary much by gender or by age.

Public opinion on “gay rights” is different. The acceptance of gay people in all walks of life is increasing. In fact, about the only status gays are not overwhelmingly accepted as is “legally married.” The Gallup Organization has been surveying public opinion on these issues for decades. In 1977, 56 percent of adults responded “should” to: “In general, do you think homosexuals should or should not have equal rights in terms of job opportunities?” Responding to the same question, 89 percent of adults responded “should” in a poll taken May 8-11, 2008.

Sizable majorities of Americans support legally protecting gays in contested areas of society. In another Gallup Poll, 68 percent of adults favored including sexual orientation in federal hate crimes legislation. Last year a CNN/Opinion Research Poll found that 79 percent of adults indicated that openly gay folks should be able to serve in the military. In the same poll, 57 percent said gay and lesbian couples should be allowed to legally adopt children.

However, between 51 percent and 63 percent opposed granting legal marriage to gays and lesbians. When the options of “legal marriage,” “civil union,” or “no legal recognition” are offered to respondents, 40 percent choose “no legal recognition.”

There is, however, a very meaningful demographic divide on the issue of legal recognition of gay marriage/civil unions: age. Younger people are more likely to support legal recognition of homosexual unions than are older people.

Typical of such patterns can be found in a CBS News Poll from 2004; 53 percent of people 65-plus favored “no legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship compared to just 25 percent of 18-29 year olds. And there is no evidence that as one ages one’s opinion changes on this.

The full acceptance of gays and lesbians into civil society in the United States, including legal recognition of a gay couple’s relationship, will eventually occur, despite the efforts of contemporary opponents.

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