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Civil Unions for All

President Bush has deployed a Weapon of Mass Destruction. Unable to defend his disastrous economic policy, which has led to record budget deficits but not created jobs, and with the U.S. occupation of Iraq becoming more problematic every day, Dubya has clearly decided to make the Gay Marriage issue a centerpiece of his re-election strategy. Bush is calling for the passage of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being only possible between a man and a woman. In doing so, he is directly appealing to hard-core conservative voters who must turn out en masse if he is to have any hope of winning re-election. He is also forcing the Democratic Presidential candidates, including the likely nominee, Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, to choose between courting the support of either Gay voters or economically disenfranchised but socially conservative swing voters in the November 2004 election.

Kerry's standing on this issue was further complicated by a statement that he made shortly after a February 2004 ruling by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, requiring the state Legislature to rework marriage laws for the benefit of gay couples. Kerry suggested that he would be open to supporting an amendment to the State Constitution that would grant equal protection under the law for gay partnerships while retaining the special status of heterosexual “marriage”. This suggestion of support has drawn the ire of many in the gay community, who see such an amendment as tantamount to carving sexual discrimination in constitutional stone. Additionally, both Senator Kerry and his chief remaining Democratic rival for the Presidency, North Carolina Senator John Edwards, contend that marriage is the kind of concern that traditionally has been left up to the States.

Having enthusiastically supported Senator Kerry's candidacy since the summer of 2003, I am not hesitant today to argue that his current position (as well as that of Senator Edwards) could be improved. It is clear that gay marriage is an idea that does not enjoy popular support at this time. I'm not even clear that a majority of Democrats support it. It is equally clear that public support for equal protection under the law is dramatically higher, with even Vice-President Cheney having come out in favor of such an approach during the 2000 Presidential campaign. Since this is an equal protection issue, it strikes me that this is an issue that is best addressed on the Federal level, and not the State. The establishment of a gender-neutral civil union or domestic partnership status on the Federal level would resolve any question going forward with regard to the “full faith and credit" provision of the United States Constitution. Moreover, it would address the concerns of both social conservatives as well as heterosexual couples who are currently choosing to live together as partners, but who are, for one reason or another, allergic to the institution of marriage.

As a forty-eight year old man involved in the dating scene, the number of divorced women that I meet who tell me “they never want to get married again” is substantial. In my experience, they do not represent a majority, but a healthy minority. And my experience is clearly not unique. For whatever reason, in the minds of many heterosexual men and women, the institution of marriage carries unwanted psycho-spiritual baggage. Many Americans feel that either economic or societal pressures are herding them into marriage, even when children are not involved. Fifty percent of first marriages end in divorce. With the cost of housing only increasing, many couples find themselves living together out of both economic and emotional necessity. It is my thought that the establishment of a domestic partnership, or civil union, status would be welcomed by a fairly substantial segment of the American electorate – including both Democrats and Independents.

In contrast, the Bush Administration recently announced plans to spend $2.5 billion to encourage marriage. This strikes me as yet another triumph of ideology over common sense. No good can be accomplished by encouraging marriage in situations where two partners do not spontaneously feel either the urge or the need. Furthermore, to suggest that marriage represents any kind of an ideal, especially where children are not involved, strikes me as crossing the line between public policy and theology. What George Bush and Jerry Falwell consider the ideal connection between sexually active partners – be they heterosexual or gay - should be no other American's concern. The government has no business seeking to encourage or discourage marriage, but has a vital interest in the creation of stable domestic partnerships.

The time has come for the establishment of federal domestic partnership rights and responsibilities in America. These partnership rights must be gender-neutral, but based on a sincere and demonstrated commitment by two people to travel the road of life together. These rights and responsibilities should be functionally identical to those currently conveyed through marriage. I urge Senator Kerry, Senator Edwards and the Democratic Party leadership to think big, and see the crisis set in motion by the Massachusetts Court as an opportunity – to both logically extend the rights of every American to equal protection under the law, and to stuff Dubya's would-be wedge issue right back down his political throat.

Matthew Carnicelli © 2004. All rights reserved.

Originally published March 1, 2004.