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The rules of the club

COUNTRY CLUBS ARE NOT KNOWN as havens of tolerance. So it is hardly surprising that the latest chapter in California gay-rights jurisprudence came from the verdant and petty grounds of an exclusive club -- the Bernardo Heights Country Club in San Diego, as it happens.

On Monday, the California Supreme Court ruled that the country club could not deny a lesbian member’s registered partner the same benefits it extends to the spouses of married members. In the anesthetized language of the law, this policy amounted to “impermissible marital status discrimination,” and the court sent the case back to the lower courts.

The ruling is a welcome addition to California’s growing body of law, both in the courts and from the Legislature, granting the rights and privileges of marriage to same-sex couples. But it may also provide opponents of gay marriage an argument: If gays and lesbians already have most of the benefits of marriage, what does it matter if they cannot legally marry?

There are at least two responses to that question. The first, and most persuasive, is largely symbolic: Gays and lesbians should have the right to marry because to deny it to them is discriminatory. The debate over gay marriage is not merely about semantics; it is about the basic rights that define a society.

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But what this answer has in moral clarity, it lacks in political viability. Only one state, Massachusetts, allows gay marriage, and there the governor has recently announced his support of a ballot measure to ban it. A measure that would make gay marriage legal in California is struggling in the Legislature, while proponents of a ban are working to put the issue before voters next spring.

The second answer is more practical. Marriage-in-all-but-name may provide gays and lesbians with most of the rights of married couples, but not all. Registered domestic partnerships in California are not recognized in other states. And registered domestic partners are not eligible for many federal benefits, including Social Security survivor payments.

Legalizing same-sex marriage may also give bigots pause, which counts as a practical help to gays and lesbians in their daily lives. Too much of the animus against gay marriage is indistinguishable from an animus against gay people, as the case of Koebke vs. Bernardo Heights Country Club makes clear.

B. Birgit Koebke has been a club member since 1987. She has been in a relationship with her life partner since 1993, and they registered their partnership with the state in 2000. After twice asking for spousal privileges for her partner, Koebke sued the club. Even given the usual standards for locker-room discourse -- and this was a club that cost $18,000 to join in 1987 -- the responses were appalling. Some members, according to the court’s unanimous opinion, were overheard suggesting that she and her partner stage a lesbian sex show to help the club pay for the lawsuit.

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Which brings to mind Groucho Marx’s quip about not wanting to join any club that would have him as a member. Whether Koebke still wants to keep her membership is up to her, of course. The larger question of why gays and lesbians would want to join the club called “marriage” also remains; as many others have pointed out, heterosexuals are capable of ruining the institution on their own.

A better question, to extend this metaphor to the breaking point, may be to ask whether the state needs to be the bouncer at the door of this club. Let churches, mosques, synagogues and other private institutions define marriage; the state could provide simply a recognition of these partnerships, which it needn’t call marriages (that argument really would be about semantics).

Despite its impracticalities, it is an appealing idea. And if a reconsideration of the state’s role in marriage causes others to reassess their opposition to gay marriage, all the better.


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