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The Elusiveness Of Compromises

Sunday's op-ed page in the New York Times includes two essays about how to end the culture wars. In one, Slate's William Saletan argues that liberals should seek to lower the number of abortions by strongly advocating the use of birth control. This is a splendid idea, and not only because it might lead to fewer abortions. It would also divide the religious right, pitting ultramontaine Catholics against (comparatively moderate) Protestant evangelicals who don't oppose the use of birth control. (Saletan's other proposal -- that liberals and conservatives alike should accept gay marriage because the institution of marriage fosters responsibility -- is a non-starter. I think he's right, but Andrew Sullivan's been making the argument for years, and those he's failed to convince aren't going to be persuaded at this late date by a couple of paragraphs in a Times op-ed.)

The other essay -- by conservative David Blankenhorn and liberal Jonathan Rauch -- is much more interesting. Blankenhorn and Rauch make a strong case for national civil unions legislation that would "bestow the status of federal civil unions on same-sex marriages and civil unions granted at the state level, thereby conferring upon them most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage." The authors also add a condition -- namely, that "Washington would recognize only those unions licensed in states with robust religious-conscience exceptions, which provide that religious organizations need not recognize same-sex unions against their will." This compromise would grant gays most of what they want while giving groups opposed to homosexuality a protection from what they fear most, which is that they will be forced to "support or facilitate gay marriage." 

Sounds reasonable to me -- provided that the Supreme Court allowed such a law to stand. In its current configuration, tilted slightly to the right, it just might. But after a couple of Obama appointments? I'd put the likelihood of a more liberal court overturning a federal civil unions law on equal protection (or other) grounds as pretty darn high. The only way to keep such a law from looking like a statute enforcing "separate but equal" treatment for gay citizens would be to open it up to straight couples as well. But as Sullivan recently noted, the French have already tried a system like that, and it's had the effect of undermining traditional marriage in precisely the way that conservatives have (I think wrongly) predicted would follow from same-sex marriage itself.

And that seems to leave gay marriage as the only constitutional, and least socially corrosive, alternative available to us. So much for compromises.

(And yes, I realize that this raises all kinds of problems for the metaphysically neutral form of liberalism I've been trying to defend in some recent posts, but I'll leave a discussion of that can of worms for another day.)