The right to love

Across California today, in mass public weddings and in small, private services, gay and lesbian couples will exchange official vows of undying love and wedlock. With the sanction of the state Supreme Court, these couples stand together as full citizens at last.

Their long odyssey to reach this day serves to remind us why people marry at all, especially in an era of casual relationships. As any married person can attest, marriage is significant precisely because it is difficult. True, it confers certain public protections, but even more, it requires personal sacrifices. If mutual affection and appreciation were enough to sustain relationships across the years, there would be no need for solemn vows of fidelity. Those vows protect many a marriage through many a rough patch; when two people agree to enter into such a union, it by rights should carry the name and honor of marriage, whether it’s between people of opposite sex or between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman.

Opponents of same-sex marriage often deplore this expansion of the meaning of marriage because they view it as threatening to traditional unions. As they use this day as a rallying point for a proposed amendment to the state Constitution to ban such marriages, it’s time to ask them directly: How does marriage of one type threaten others? Why do many heterosexuals feel that the beauty of their own marriage vows is in no way changed by today’s weddings, while others feel theirs have somehow been diminished?

Perhaps the next few months will ease these fears, as same-sex couples begin their married lives together. Those couples will settle into communities without disorder or threat; they will bring legal protection to their bonds of love. Those bonds can only be good for society -- children gain from being raised by married parents, and communities are stronger when residents are legally committed to one another. As more and more Californians marry, society will grow stronger, not weaker.


That’s no doubt why opponents sought a stay of the court’s ruling until after the election. They know that as same-sex marriages become commonplace, the fears about them will fade, and eventually we will wonder what all the fuss was about. In the meantime, opponents will resort to hyperbole and fear. Take this missive last week from the Alliance for Marriage, issued in response to the announcement that the state of New York would recognize the unions performed in California:

“The governor of New York state will declare hundreds of years of marriage law in New York to be null and void. ... The governor of New York state will force California-style ‘gay marriage’ on all the families and children of his own state.”

It’s a fairly reliable indicator of a bad argument when its proponent is forced to overstate the case in order to make it. The above surely qualifies. Same-sex couples are not upending the institution of marriage; nor are their supporters. Rather, they are engaged in a profoundly conservative act: They ask not to abolish marriage but to uphold it.

Some religious organizations won’t perform these marriages or recognize these unions -- that’s their constitutional right. But the government, which has obligations of equity, may not engage in the discrimination that religions are allowed. As long as it bestows the privileges of marriage on some couples, it must bestow them on all.

In California, the initiative process allows voters to amend the state Constitution directly, and unfortunately, a measure on the November ballot will give them the chance. The question won’t be whether same-sex marriage is right or wrong -- that’s a matter of personal conviction -- but whether those who believe it is wrong should have the power to deny marriage to those who seek its protections.

Put another way: Many Californians undoubtedly object to unwed couples who have and raise children together, but no constitutional amendment prevents that, whatever the moral calculus.

To those who insist that an unevolving morality undergirds our state and federal constitutions, we remind them that not so long ago, many Americans believed with passionate conviction that it was a sin, a threat to families and a violation of the law for people of different races to marry.

The 1959 ruling of a Virginia state court judge to deny this right to a black woman and a white man aptly summarized the fervor with which opponents of miscegenation drew on tradition and religion to support their views:

“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents,” trial judge Leon Bazile wrote. “And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down that ruling in 1967; on that happy day, 16 states were forced to abandon their laws banning interracial marriage. Today, interracial couples go about their lives without legal threat; some no doubt still feel the sting of disapproval. But those who would look askance on those lawfully wedded couples do so without the state to reinforce their bigotry. Our courts, certainly our supreme courts, exist not to assess God’s will but to enforce the precepts of our constitutions, including the insistence that all Americans -- black or white, male or female, straight or gay -- are entitled to equal protection and the due process of our laws.

The California Supreme Court affirmed that principle last month and delivered the eloquent basis for today’s ceremonies. As the state’s voters watch the celebrations in the coming months, they should enjoy the sight of fellow citizens availing themselves of a public institution, that of marriage. These celebrations allow us to share in the newlyweds’ happiness, to join in acknowledging a milestone of joy and lifelong commitment. And they prompt at least one more question for those who disapprove: How can the state’s blessing on these acts of love in any way diminish us?