A tussle over same-sex marriage in the District of Columbia reveals how high the stakes of the debate have risen. Proponents of redefining marriage frequently assert that this would be only a minor adjustment, expanding the institution slightly to accommodate the two to three percent of the population that self-identifies as lesbian or gay. The appeal is for "tolerance" to allow people to form sexual relationships as they please. But now it becomes clear that same-sex advocates want much more than tolerance.
D.C. council member David Catania filed a same-sex marriage bill in October. With support from the mayor and 11 of 13 council members, it seems virtually assured of passage when the council votes December 1. A referendum that could have stopped the bill was ruled out of order by the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics. The board reasoned, curiously, that invalidating a law not yet adopted would somewhat deprive same-sex couples of rights they already enjoy. At this point the only (slim) chance of blocking D.C. same-sex marriage lies in the Democrat-controlled U.S. Congress.
In the absence of drama about the bill's ultimate fate, public debate has centered on whether religious individuals and institutions should be forced to treat same-sex couples as married. Should the law compel a photographer to provide his services for a same-sex wedding? Should a marriage counselor be required to help same-sex couples strengthen their relationships? Should a Christian adoption agency be obliged to place children for adoption with same-sex couples? Would a church-based soup kitchen have to extend spousal benefits to same-sex partners of employees?
The D.C. Council could have side-stepped such conflicts. Council member Yvette Alexander proposed an amendment that would have granted individuals and institutions the right to distinguish between same-sex relationships and man-woman marriage, based on religious convictions. The amendment was rejected.
So the D.C. same-sex marriage law looks likely to become an instrument of leverage to pry people loose from traditional views on marriage. Churches and clergy would not be forced to conduct same-sex weddings. But in every other respect religious persons and institutions would be pressed to act as if there were nothing special about the lifelong, one-flesh union of the two complementary sexes. Those most vulnerable to such pressure would be persons and institutions financially beholden to the D.C. government.
Foremost among those are Catholic Charities of D.C., the largest city-contracted provider of social services. Its roughly $20 million in annual city contracts provide services such as homeless shelters, medical clinics, and tutoring programs to 68,000 city residents. When the Catholic archdiocese warned that it might lose those contracts if it could not comply with a same-sex marriage mandate, council members reacted harshly-against the archdiocese.
Council member Mary Cheh called the archdiocese "somewhat childish." Catania suggested that Catholic Charities were not "an indispensable component of our social services infrastructure." He complained, "It's a shame they don't extend the same efforts to issues that really matter, like health care and homelessness."
It is odd that Catania, having devoted so much effort to redefining marriage, should now classify it as an issue that did not really matter. And that he should presume to instruct a religious body about which issues should really matter to it.
All this rage suggests that perhaps forcing private individuals and institutions to approve same-sex relationships is not an unintended side effect of the same-sex marriage movement. Perhaps such coercion is the whole point.
"Marriage equality" in D.C. would bring few tangible gains for gays and lesbians. Under a domestic partnership law in effect since 2002, D.C. same-sex couples already have access to almost all the available benefits of marriage. Nor are there many couples lining up for these benefits. A 2008 study reported only 802 registered D.C. domestic partnerships, in a city with 250,000 households and 3,500 same-sex couples.
Ultimately, what is driving the same-sex marriage campaign seems to be the desire for a visible expression of society's blessing. Lesbians and gays want to hear society affirm that their relationships are morally acceptable. Gay writer Andrew Sullivan has remarked, "Including homosexuals within marriage would be a means of conveying the highest form of social approval imaginable."
But this is precisely the approval that many other Americans, including religious traditionalists, do not wish to grant. Same-sex marriage laws, in abolishing all distinctions between same-sex relationships and man-woman matrimony, turn supporters of such distinctions into enemies of state policy. Because "marriage equality" is claimed as a "civil right," akin to racial equality, those who would deny it become the equivalent of racist bigots in the eyes of the law. And they would be treated as racist bigots have been (properly) treated: shamed and shunned, targeted for lawsuits and driven out of public life.
This is what is beginning to happen in D.C. and elsewhere. Will it be tolerance or tyranny that wins the day?
Alan Wisdom is Vice President of the Institute on Religion and Democracy in Washington, D.C. and author of the recent monograph, "Is Marriage Worth Defending?"