My view: The civil rights comparison with gay marriage deserves scrutiny

By Michael Erickson

Published: Sunday, Aug. 18 2013 12:00 a.m. MDT

Last month, Pennsylvania's attorney general refused to defend a state law defining marriage as between a man and a woman. Her website argues: "The issue of same-sex marriage is squarely in the tradition of the struggle for civil rights in the U.S." That comparison has significant implications for how same-sex marriage advocates treat marriage laws that they disagree with. It also deserves more scrutiny.

As a grassroots supervisor for California's Proposition 8, I was surprised to see numerous yard signs stolen, slashed and defaced. Those responsible were likely law-abiding citizens. Why the exception? Undoubtedly, many felt they were in hand-to-hand political combat against discrimination, hatred and bigotry.

It's no secret that media coverage disproportionately favors same-sex marriage. A candid admission in the Washington Post explains why "(many journalists) see people opposed to gay rights today as cousins, perhaps distant cousins, of people in the 1950s and 1960s who, citing God and the Bible, opposed black people sitting in the bus seat, or dining at the lunch counter, of their choosing." (What goes unsaid is that the most influential civil-rights leaders, "citing God and the Bible," opposed discrimination and segregation on religious grounds.)

Regrettably, some infamous groups spew anti-gay rhetoric that is hateful and indefensible. But far too often the media amplify these voices and conflate all religious opinion with this easily assailable straw man. As such, they entirely ignore, as a Deseret News editorial put it, our "morally complex and pluralistic world" (June 30). A world where some religious faiths that only endorse marriage between a man and a woman also support nondiscrimination laws for gays and lesbians. And a world where some gays and lesbians oppose same-sex marriage "citing a belief that children benefit most from opposite-sex parents."

Unfortunately, the situation is unlikely to change unless this civil-rights comparison is scrutinized. Here are three differences that deserve attention:

First, laws prohibiting interracial marriage were designed to promote white supremacy. That's why a unanimous Supreme Court invalidated these laws for having "no legitimate overriding purpose independent of invidious racial discrimination." In sharp contrast as one gay-marriage advocate acknowledges, "Unlike racial segregation, to which anti-gay laws are often compared, the traditional restriction of marriage to opposite-sex couples was not designed, in and of itself, to denigrate or harm same-sex couples."

Second, the Civil Rights movement, according to noted leader John Lewis, "was built upon deep-seated religious convictions" and, without such faith, "would have been like a bird without wings." But it's hard to imagine prominent gay-marriage advocates describing their movement as "built upon deep-seated religious convictions." Indeed, it has often been hostile to religion.

To be sure, some of that hostility stems from perceived, and sometimes very real, denigration by some religious adherents. Nevertheless, the different roots of these movements appear to manifest sharply contrasting fruits. Compare, for example, the gospel-inspired Civil Rights anthem "We Shall Overcome" to the now popular mantra "Get on the right side of history!" Or compare the Christian perseverance evident in this preacher's promise, "We will win you with the power of our capacity to endure," with the conventional pride revealed in this politician's bluster, "It's going to happen, whether you like it or not."

Third, whereas segregationists fought to preserve their social status and political power, many in the religious coalition for man-woman marriage seek, in the words of President Obama, "to preserve and strengthen families." Although in favor of same-sex marriage now, even President Obama acknowledges that their "impulse" to strengthen families "is the right one."

Notwithstanding these differences, discrimination based on an individual's sexual orientation should be addressed. Marriage, however, is about more than civil rights for individuals. Marriage has profound implications for a historically vulnerable and underrepresented class of persons — children.

In the fortieth year since Roe v. Wade, public opinion has settled on a middle ground that recognizes the concerns of both pro-choice and pro-life advocates — approving of abortion for threats to a mother's health, rape, incest, and birth defects, but disapproving for elective birth control, selecting birth traits or avoiding parental responsibility.

If the public discussion on marriage is not prematurely curtailed, public opinion might yet arrive at a common ground that recognizes the dignity of gay and lesbian Americans while also preserving marriage between a man and a woman as the surest foundation for the future of children.

Michael Erickson is an attorney in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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