Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Strike down domestic partnerships

(Note: I am behind on posting my newspaper column here. Here is my column from August 6th, the week that Doyle's domestic partner registry went into effect.)

Publication:Waukesha Freeman (Conley); Date:Aug 6, 2009; Section:Opinion; Page Number:10A

Strike down domestic partnerships

(James Wigderson is a blogger publishing at http://wigdersonlibrarypub.blogspot.com and a Waukesha resident. His column runs Thursdays in The Freeman.)

This week, Wisconsin’s 72 counties began the process of registering same-sex couples as part of a new domestic partnership registry. Wisconsin Family Action is suing to stop the registry, stating that the registry is prohibited by a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage.

They have a point. The amendment states, “Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state.”

At issue is whether the domestic partner registry is “substantially similar” to marriage. Looking at the criteria used to qualify for the new registry, it would be hard to argue otherwise. After all, the criteria are taken directly from those used for marriage.

Each of them must be 18 years or older, no closer in family relations than second cousins, share or intend to share the same residence, and not be married or in another domestic partnership. Even the prohibitions on too-close family relations and bigamy are preserved.

We can debate the benefits that are granted to same-sex couples under this new law. We can argue whether they are achievable through private contracts or separate enabling legislation. We can even question the wisdom of granting some of the benefits during an economic recession, when the granting of those benefits may result in additional costs on the state and private employers.

That is not what this debate is really about. It is about an attempt to force the state’s, and thereby society’s, recognition and approval of same-sex relationships.

This has been the goal since author and gay activist Andrew Sullivan suggested legalizing gay marriage in 1989 in an essay in The New Republic. He wrote, “Legalizing gay marriage would offer homosexuals the same deal society now offers heterosexuals: general social approval and specific legal advantages in exchange for a deeper and harder-to-extractyourself-from commitment to another human being.”

Fine, but what of the cost to society when a pillar of the social structure is rendered meaningless? While blogger Zach Wisniewski is surely correct in noting that the “institution of traditional marriage as we know it (defined as being between a man and a woman) didn’t come to an end” since the registry began Monday, marriage as an institution has been weakened and there will be a long-term cost.

Defenders of gay marriage and civil unions like to point out the high rates of adultery and divorce as evidence that marriage is already losing its special significance. To them I would ask, if a tree is being cut down, would you save it by setting it on fire? Of course not, nor should we continue to enact the means of diminishing the meaning of marriage.

We should also point out that, until recently, divorce carried with it a substantial social stigma, and adultery still carries some social penalty. There is a visceral response that broken marriages are not in our culture’s best interests. This is reinforced by our knowledge of the actuarial tables regarding the relative impoverishment of women and children involved in divorce. While there are individual cases of success, the breakdown of the family is a leading cause of social ruin.

Proponents of the civil unions are crying foul at Wisconsin Family Action’s lawsuit claiming supporters of the amendment to ban gay marriage claimed it would not ban civil unions. True, provided those unions are not set up to be substantially similar to marriage, as the new law clearly is.

Despite some recent setbacks, support for the definition of traditional marriage continues to have broad support in our society. President Obama’s opposition to gay marriage has been often stated. African-Americans and Hispanics joined with traditional conservative constituencies to support a ban in California. And here in Wisconsin, nearly 60 percent of the voters supported the amendment even as the Democratic Party made gains across the state that year.

We should continue in the spirit of that bipartisan, cross-racial consensus to defend and even strengthen the institution of marriage.

And in the interest of defending our state constitution, the courts should strike down this domestic partner registry.