Beyond the culture wars

The Baltimore Sun

Veterans like to say that the difference between fairy tales and war stories is that the former start, "Once upon a time," while the latter start, "There I was."

Recently, I became a conscientious objector in the only kind of war we professors have the courage to fight: a culture war. At a political science academic conference, I had the temerity to suggest that rather than refusing to hold our conventions in states without gay marriage, we academics should encourage reasoned exchange between gay rights supporters and opponents to find solutions everyone can live with. Political scientists have long argued that public policy works better and has more legitimacy when a wide range of groups have a seat at the table. So why not with gay marriage?

My idea went over like a lead balloon. I'm just glad I don't need a grant from any of the professors who heard it.

The media often report that religious activists are unwilling to compromise on gay marriage. For them, gay marriage is against God's law, period. And they want to impose their beliefs on the rest of us.

Less often reported is that the civil libertarians who back gay marriage, including many of my fellow academics, seem equally eager to impose their beliefs on others. Privately, my fellow professors argue that a religiously affiliated college or university should receive no government funding for student loans or faculty research until gay couples can wed at the campus chapel, synagogue or mosque.

That is where public policy is headed. As National Public Radio's Barbara Bradley Haggerty reported last summer, recent court and bureaucratic decisions have forced private religious institutions to embrace gay rights, no matter their sacred beliefs. Yeshiva University was ordered to allow same-sex couples in its married dormitory. A Christian school has been sued for expelling two allegedly lesbian students. In Philadelphia, the Boy Scouts will lose their headquarters until they have openly gay scoutmasters. In Boston, Catholic Charities ended adoptions after rulings from the state's high court forced it to place children with gay and lesbian couples.

In short, civil libertarians not only want to permit gay marriage, but they want to make it mandatory.

As a social liberal, I support gay marriage in the public sphere. Yet I see nothing at all liberal about forcing churches, synagogues and mosques to surrender their sacred beliefs. Enforced tolerance seems more apt to inflame hatred than to promote harmony. Instead, I propose three principles to guide the gay marriage debate.

First, we should respect the rights of homosexuals to enjoy the same family life options as heterosexuals, while also permitting people of faith to practice their faith. Neither gay rights nor religious rights should be taken lightly: A liberal society needs policymakers smart enough and big enough to permit both.

Second, for gay marriage, the traditional civil rights formulations do not apply. Race is so slippery a concept that some respectable scholars deny its very existence; by contrast, gender and sexual preference are key to our human identity, and to child raising. Gay marriage is therefore a far greater social change than interracial marriage: Indeed, it is the most significant change in American family life since the mid-1800s, when women went from being property to owning property.

A third point follows. This contentious issue should be determined by representative institutions in which a wide range of people can have their voices heard and their needs accommodated - not merely by courts and civil rights commissions who focus on the rights of some while short-changing others.

To have legitimacy, gay marriage must come from our elected legislators, not a handful of unaccountable judges and bureaucrats. Only our elected representatives can craft gay marriage rights that all of us can live with.

That may not be what the culture warriors on the left and right want to hear, but it is how democracy works - and works best.

Robert Maranto, a Baltimore native, is the 21st-century chair in leadership in the department of education reform at the University of Arkansas. His e-mail is

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