Saturday, January 28, 2012

In NJ, Gay marriage fight is debating definition of word

For about sixty percent of the United States that does not recognize civil unions or gay marriage, the debate over the legal rights of homosexual and lesbian couples is often framed as a question of fairness and civil rights. Agree or disagree, the argument is made that the state should recognize a reality that already exists and allow similar tax deductions, medical insurance, property rights, ability to make medical decisions for ones significant other etc. 

In NJ, in 2009 the statue legalizing civil unions specifically references granting the civil union every civil right and responsibility granted to a married same sex couple in New Jersey (obviously the state can’t do anything about other states or federal law) In short, in NJ a civil union is everything but the “ M” word.

Yet for the second time in two years, legislators in Trenton are again hotly debating legalizing gay marriage in the Garden State. But despite all the rhetoric and comparisons to the 1960’s civil rights fights, the political maneuvers by state democratic leaders who have been checkmated for two years by populist republican governor Christ Christie, his counter move to call for a state wide referendum and the like- both sides overlook the reality on the ground – de facto same sex marriage already exists and thrives in NJ, it just doesn’t use the word  “marriage”.

If this was not crystal clear previously, the press release of the NJ Catholic bishops on the topic seals the deal.

What is surprising is not that the Bishops oppose the legalization of same sex marriage; they make very clear they do not support such a change. No what is amazing is essentially the bishop’s final arguments- that the legislation is not needed because same sex civil union partners already have all the civil rights of married couples. 

So we are down to debating the definition (or perhaps more precisely changing the century’s old definition) a very emotional, very personal word– marriage. Now no matter how important the word, the definition of word “ marriage” will neither shake the foundations of western civilization nor will it represent a seminal civil rights victory.