Civil unions for all best answer to thorny problem

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Conservatives shouldn't need a new "meta-analysis" of 2012 exit polling on gay marriage to know they're losing -- for now -- this cultural debate. The exit polls themselves should have been a wake-up call enough.

But judging from the content of magazines, books and blogs in the months since the election, conservatives are doubling down. They continue to argue -- reasonably -- for the historical and cultural importance of heterosexual marriage while ignoring an eminent danger that their strategy and a second Obama term make much more likely: the precipitous erosion of religious liberty.

Since conservatives aren't likely to find a "poster child" for their cause as appealing as Angelina Jolie or Barack Obama, they should embrace a more appealing approach -- civil unions for all. It's an approach that assures equal legal status, regardless of sexual orientation, while preserving our constitutional right to different opinions on the religious meaning of marriage -- a right that's already being seriously curtailed.

Exit polls from the 2012 presidential election showed a continued rapid shift toward acceptance of gay marriage, particularly in "red" states, with the highest opposition amassed in the South.

Bipartisan pollsters working for Freedom to Marry, a same-sex marriage advocacy group, released Thursday a deeper exit poll analysis that shows opposition to gay marriage concentrated in two slices of the electorate -- older voters and white, evangelical Protestants.

The opposition of white evangelicals could have been quickly and fairly extrapolated from exit polls the day after the election, since evangelicals are most numerous in the South. But funding new analyses and new polls leads to news releases, which the national media dutifully report.

And the headline on Saturday's meta-analysis story in my local paper -- "Gay-union opposition becoming increasingly isolated, pollsters say" -- let slip the purpose of the advocates' polling: to make gay-marriage opponents feel isolated. To let the reluctant know they should get on the winning side.

Public opinion is highly changeable. In 2011, before President Barack Obama "evolved" on gay marriage -- that is, resumed his pre-2008 support for it -- only 33 percent of blacks supported gay marriage, but by October 2012, Pew pollsters found the number had grown to 44 percent. Washington Post-ABC News polls were even more dramatic: Within two weeks of the president's announcement, support among blacks jumped to 59 percent.

But would the higher support among, say, America's Catholics or religious African-Americans remain strong if they were aware of the mushrooming persecution of gay marriage opponents?

Wedding photographers and cake-makers, for instance, who are also religious conservatives are being sued by gay couples and/or fined by human rights commissions for declining to take part in gay weddings: So if they participate in the free market, they are not allowed free exercise of religion?

Faith-based organizations can no longer have government contracts to provide homeless services or handle adoptions because they cannot agree that gay unions are "marriages" -- sacraments of the church. The loss of the churches' offering-subsidized services has cost taxpayers millions of dollars in cities such as Boston and Washington, D.C.

But we the people can choose to assert the wall of separation. We can authorize the state to regulate only civil unions and leave "marriage" to the already very diverse interpretations of the sacred realm.

The rationale is quite simple and straightforward. For millennia, long before "the state" existed, marriage belonged to the sacred realm. And for a huge majority of us, it still does -- even for those who believe their God approves of gay marriage.

The issue has already made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which is hearing a pair of cases from California and New York.

A conservative/libertarian decision would be -- at this point in our cultural evolution -- a decision that refuses to take sides on an inherently religious subject. The court could show it has learned something from the cultural convulsions it caused with Roe v. Wade and leave the gay marriage issue to be decided state by state. And/or it could deem civil unions for all the only religiously neutral option available.

It would work. The Roman Catholic Church has long accommodated "domestic partnerships" -- anything, really, that's not called "marriage." Wedding photographers and caterers can spell out their religious restrictions in the fine print, lose or gain business accordingly and practice their faith free of government persecution.

I deeply desire this separation of the civil and the sacred. I already respect the unions of my gay friends, but I believe that both their unions and mine, and their religions and mine, deserve the orderly protections of the law. Nothing more, and nothing less.


Ruth Ann Dailey:


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