Empty gesture

WHAT'S UPPERMOST in the thoughts of voters in this election year?

In those few moments when they let their minds drift from the mundane travails of putting one foot in front of the other and getting through the day, what broader concerns appear?


The economy and the war in Iraq top the list, pollsters say. Terrorism, health care and gas prices follow as second-tier issues. Very few, perhaps 1 percent, rank gay marriage as a top priority. A majority oppose it, but even those attitudes seem to be softening since same-sex unions in California and Massachusetts have taken the oddity out of the ritual.

Yet there's a kind of twisted logic in the Senate's decision to waste precious days before its long summer recess on a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage that all acknowledge has absolutely no chance of winning the two-thirds majority it needs to pass.


Senate GOP leaders are doing the bidding of a small but highly vocal element of their conservative base that is trying desperately to churn up interest in the issue because their side is losing ground.

But these religious and social conservatives are swimming against the tide of a revolution, and no amount of browbeating lawmakers dependent on their support is likely to reverse that.

President Bush, who has also been bludgeoned out of his near silence on the issue, complained in his weekly radio address: "This difficult debate was forced upon our country by a few activist judges and local officials who have taken it on themselves to change the meaning of marriage."

By focusing on some isolated trees, though, he's ignoring the forest. Judicial and political leaders interpret laws within the context of the social texture of the times; that's part of the elegance of our legal structure.

Decisions honoring gay rights doubtless wouldn't have been made 40 years ago, when the nation was struggling with the concept of racial equality. The fundamental values of liberty and equality are protected in a dynamic way, reflecting the era.

Which isn't to say the debate over gay marriage is effectively over - far from it. Voters will be asked this fall to consider bans on same-sex unions in at least seven states and perhaps six more. Legal challenges will continue to wind their way through the courts.

Meanwhile, gay couples will continue to fall in love, formalize their unions, raise families and live their lives more and more openly and commonly as acceptance grows.

By the time the Supreme Court finally weighs in, its decision will likely take the cumulative experience into account. That's what opponents of gay marriage fear.


But Congress isn't going to come to the rescue; in fact, Senate Republicans are expected to drop the issue to avoid further embarrassment if they lose a procedural vote today. Maybe they'll have time left to work on something more useful.