After the passage of Proposition 8—which outlawed gay marriage—in California last year, I never expected to see a rising tide of states in the last few months pass their own laws allowing gay marriage.
In the past three months, three new states have joined Massachusetts and Connecticut in allowing gay couples to marry: Iowa, Vermont, and now, Maine. And the District of Columbia City Council just voted to recognize same sex marriages in the District, which some say may lead to such marriages being allowed in DC. (New York has already passed such a law.)
Conservative forces have been mobilizing against these new developments, with new "spokesperson" Miss California Carrie Prejean joining the National Organization for Marriage in speaking out against gay marriage and warning of the many "threats" that gay marriage will cause this country.
But here's the thing about the anti-gay marriage forces in this country. It's one thing to view marriage from a Christian perspective; it's a very different thing to force those Christian views onto everyone else. Marriage is a religious institution, yes. But in this country, it's also a legal institution that is governed by the state, and that provides very real benefits to those who marry.
What are the benefits of marriage? At last count, the United States General Accounting Office reported 1,138 federal rights, protections and benefits that come with marriage. That means heterosexual married couples automatically receive these rights and protections, while same-sex couples — even those in civil unions or domestic partnerships — do not.
This includes filing joint taxes, getting family insurance rates, getting the same tax breaks for paying for insurance, using the Family and Medical Leave Act to care for a sick partner, claiming survivor benefits from social security and life insurance, getting spousal employee benefits, having the right to petition for a partner’s immigration, and having their beneficiary status in wills contested by “real” family members.
To provide these legal and financial benefits to some couples, and to deny them to others based on who they are, is fundamentally un-American, and smacks of the days when states still had anti-miscegenation laws which prohibited interracial marriage.
While the first few states to pass gay marriage laws did so via the courts, causing conservatives to accuse those courts of forcing their will on the people, the laws in Vermont and Maine were passed by the states' legislatures, who were, of course, elected into office by the voting public.
But even if every state with a gay marriage law saw that law arise thanks to the work of the courts, that would not make the laws any less binding, nor any less morally correct. In fact, if we look back at some of the most important civil rights gains in this country, such as the law banning racial segregation (Brown vs. Board of Education), the law allowing interracial marriage (Loving vs. Virginia), or the law banning racial discrimination in home sales and rentals (Jones vs. Mayer Co.), they were passed by the Supreme Court well before much of the public was in favor of them.
Should we have waited to desegregate the nation's schools to give the country's racists a chance to catch up? And should we now wait to give gay Americans the same basic civil rights as all Americans, to give the homophobes and the religious bigots a chance to catch up?