Thursday, May 15, 2008

The culture wars continue

Today the CA Supreme Court is expected to hand down a decision on gay marriage. Proposition 22, aka the Knight Initiative, was passed back in 1999 defining marriage in California as being between one man and one woman. This ballot proposition almost caused me to switch my voter registration to CA from my native NY in order to vote against it, but I reasoned that the school budget vote in May would be more likely to be affected by my vote than this initiative, so I stayed registered in NY at the time. Gay couples have sued, oral arguments were yesterday, and a ruling is expected today.

This site has a decent synopsis of the expectations.

For the record, I support reasonable marriage equality. By that, I mean that marriages between any two consenting adults who aren't married to other people, and let's leave the sophomoric statements about "Everyone already has the equal right to marriage someone of the opposite sex, so you're not advocating equality but special treatment" out in the dust where they belong. I also respect that the proponents of this (to me) odious initiative at least went about it legally; I'm not happy with their result, but process matters to me, and so I'm far more fond of this statute than something like the Defense of Marriage Act which strikes me as so blatantly unconstitutional.

One of the things, though, that bothers me in the coverage of these matters is the repetition of things which are simply not true. "Unlike many other states, California also has a robust domestic partnership law, passed in 1999, which gives gay couples almost all of the legal rights and benefits afforded to married couples." This is a common perception--that if you create civil unions, you're creating something legally equal to a marriage, but merely calling it something different, so what's the big deal?

The big deal is that there are a number of ways that no domestic partnership law nor civil union is legally equal to marriage. None of them touch upon the federal marriage benefits--joint filing of federal taxes, lower inheritance taxes, the ability to use marriage to sponsor citizenship, family-related Social Security benefits, inheritance of a pension, etc. Even in CA, domestic partners may not file joint state tax returns. Spouses have legal privilege in court testimony; domestic partners nearly universally do not. Civil unions and domestic partnerships do not cross state lines, which is of far more concern today than the similarly awful anti-miscegenation laws from the 1930s--our economy is far more mobile now, and it's much more likely that any young couple will end up moving to a new state for their education or employment. There are hundreds of legal differences between marriages and either civil unions or domestic partnership agreements. This is a fact that is very rarely acknowledged in popular discussions of the issue. And, I feel, something that is to the tremendous disadvantage of those of us arguing for equality.

When you're arguing for the need to treat people equally, one of your best allies is the outrage some people will feel at the lack of equality. That outrage is going to be blunted when people feel the only difference is what something is called, rather than the pragmatic legal realities that are the bigger problem. Until the general public is made aware of host of legal differences between civil unions/domestic partnerships (or even the gay marriages in MA) and a federally-recognized marriage, I think it's unlikely that they will care enough to make a change.

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