14 November 2008

Notes of civility

Not all the activists supporting gay marriage and upset over the approval of Proposition 8 in California are being disruptive or otherwise taking what would seem to be a counterproductive approach if their goal is to change people's minds. Or perhaps there is a backlash to the backlash of the proposition's passage. In any case, there are encouraging signs that some advocates of same-sex marriage prefer to take a constructive, civil approach in the effort to win over hearts and minds:

  • One of the key groups organizing demonstrations nationally, Join the Impact, is urging same-sex marriage advocates to be positive in the way they interact with those who disagree: "We stand for reaching out across all communities. We do not stand for bigotry, for scapegoating, or using anger as our driving force. Our mission is to encourage our community to engage our opposition in a conversation about full equality and to do this with respect, dignity, and an attitude of outreach and education. JoinTheImpact, as an entity, will not encourage divisiveness, violence, or disrespect of others and we do not approve of this. We do not stand for pointing the finger at one group and placing blame. The LGBTQ community comes in all different colors, creeds, religious beliefs, and political parties. If we allow ourselves to place blame on one community or another, then we are no better than those who oppose us."
  • Perhaps there are no stronger words than those of blogger Ryan J. Davis, who says he has long been critical of the Mormon church but nevertheless compares some of those protesting outside Latter-day Saint temples as being comparable to the virulently anti-gay Fred Phelps crowd: "I'm a little scared of the anti-Mormon fervor that I'm seeing in the gay community. ... Seriously guys, cut it out. I know you're angry. I know you need some way to express that anger, but the Mormon Temple in NYC makes no more sense than your grandparents' retirement community in Sacramento or The Apollo Theater in Harlem. Can't we be better than this? ... While thousands and thousands of protesters gather outside the Mormon Temple, evoking scenes of Fred Phelps, we'll still be left with a simple fact: We were out-organized and out-fundraised in California. That's why we lost. ... This protest will just confirm the Mormons' fears about us and will certainly be portrayed negatively in the media. It's old, divisive politics. Politics I'd like to put behind us and had hoped we could after Obama's historic victory. ... It was the people of California who voted to put bigotry on their law books and it's shameful. So let's educate them. Outreach, not Anger. We have to actually spend time on this; we can't solve it screaming for two hours at people walking into a church."
  • Prop 8 supporter and San Francisco resident Darren Main, in a letter to the Berkeley Daily Planet, wrote: "This week I learned of plans by some in the LGBT community to protest at the local Mormon Church in response to their financial support of Prop. 8. To protest any religion, even those that actively oppose our rights, is counterproductive and harmful to our cause. If we truly want to stand up for our own rights, we can only do so by showing deference toward the rights of others. As much as we might disagree with some people of faith, that doesn't give us the right to disrupt their religious service or suggest that they should not be able to believe what they like, vote how they see fit, and financially support causes in which they feel passionate. ... I hope you will take to the streets and make your voices heard, but never lose sight of the fact that the only way we will lose this fight is if we follow the lead of those whom oppose equal rights by joining them in a shouting match rather than leading the way to a more enlightened future."

What the ultimate goal of civil discourse is, however, remains unclear. Is there any resolution other than the legalization of full-scale same-sex marriage that will please the activists? I'm doubtful. And the same is true for the other side, which appears to have reached its limit of compromise in its hesitant willingness to accept some sort of civil unions (which would have been anathema not all that long ago).

One possibility of compromise has surfaced quite a bit recently in the blogs attracting Mormons is that of basically abolishing marriage as a legal institution and have civil unions for all (see, for example, this comment), leaving the institution of marriage to the churches. (Such proposals have not come the church itself, which has has had a nuanced on civil unions.) Recently, Douglas Kmiec, a constitutional-law professor at Pepperdine University, proposed something very similar, suggesting that the California governor could by executive ruling, at least on a preliminary basis, make the state's civil-union law apply to all. Specifically:

The governor has administrative authority to have regulations issued interpreting family law, and nothing in Prop. 8 precludes him from ensuring that homosexual and heterosexual couples are treated equally under state law so long as he stays clear of "marriage." This could be accomplished by limiting the state of California prospectively to the issuance of civil unions for all couples, rather than marriage licenses, leaving marriage, which in origin is predominantly a religious concept and not the real business of the state, to religion.

A radical move? Certainly, and who knows what its unintended consequences would be? But it seems no less radical than the redefining of marriage as endorsed by the top courts of California, Connecticut and Massachusetts.

11 November 2008

Pro-gay group seeks to "bridge that divide" in Utah

A pro-gay Utah group sees a silver lining in developments surround passage of California's Proposition 8, the measure that outlawed same-sex marriage.

The group, Equality Utah, held a press conference yesterday to announce that it would pursue a legislative agenda expanding certain protections for gays — and that it expects the politically dominant Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to go along.

During the debate over Prop 8, which passed in part because church leaders strongly encouraged members to give of their time and means to support it, various church statements also said that the church doesn't oppose some legal protections sought by gays, such as fair housing and employment rights. So Equality Utah, proclaiming in a press release that "Equality Utah takes LDS Church at its word," has asked sympathetic members of the Legislature to introduce bills to secure those types of rights. Said Mike Thompson, executive director of Equality Utah:

While our position on marriage equality may differ from the LDS Church's position, I believe we share the desire to provide protections for gay and transgender Utahns — protections that do not compromise the Church's position on, and definition of, marriage. Proposition 8 has created a great divide. Now is the time to look for opportunities to bridge that divide and create the needed protections, rights and responsibilities for Utah's gay and transgender people. This will be Equality Utah's focus and we ask the LDS Church to support these efforts.

Equality Utah said that the agenda will include the following:

  • Extending health benefits to gay partners.
  • Adding "sexual orientation and gender identity" to the list of characteristics employers and landlords may not consider when making employment or housing decisions.

  • Probate rights.

  • Creation of a statewide domestic partner registry that would provide rights of inheritance, insurance and fair housing.

  • Repeal of a state constitutional provision, approved by voters that states that "no other domestic union; however, denominated, may be recognized as marriage or be given the same or substantially equivalent legal effect."

The church has had no official comment on the group's announcement.

The group's strategy raises at least two questions:

  • Will the church go along with certain types of pro-gay legislation? First, it should be noted that there's a difference between church statements that it wouldn't oppose various efforts and any suggestion that it would support such efforts. It's hard to imagine the church taking any kind of lead in such efforts. On the other hand, once it was made clear that a Salt Lake City plan to create a partnership registry wasn't designed to be a marriage substitute, the church didn't oppose it. It appears, to judge from its actions, that the church's interest is in supporting traditional marriage, not in trying to encourage oppression of any group in society. But in practice, many Mormon legislators take more conservative positions than the church leadership, which seldom gets involved in direct political action. So even if the church had no objection to a particular type of legislation, it is very likely that many legislators would.

  • Is Equality Utah being disingenuous? On the surface, the group appears to be limiting its legislation to what it says various church leaders have said they wouldn't oppose. But a closer look at its agenda suggests that in fact the group is seeking more than that. For example, no church leader has said the church has no objection to "gender identity" legislation (the church's unequivocal view is that a person's gender is an eternal characteristic, not something freely chosen). Certain provisions like that doom the legislation in its current form, and Equality Utah should know that. (Of course, asking for more than you can legitimately expect is part of the negotiation process.) And regardless of what church officials might say about it, it appears extremely unlikely that the marriage provision of the Utah Constitution is going to be changed soon, even if church leaders could be persuaded to go along.

Despite these caveats, statements by both the church and Equality Utah suggest some willingness to find common ground, to work for something that both sides might find acceptable. The group's statements are certainly a far cry from some of the bigoted comments and actions that have come from the fringes of the gay movement elsewhere in recent days.

08 November 2008

Winners and losers this week

It's difficult to find any clear conservative trends, or liberal ones, in voting on initiatives and referenda this week. There was a little of something for everyone. Even so, there were plenty of losers and winners.

Among the winners:

  • Opponents of gay marriage: California's Proposition 8, designed to reverse a state Supreme Court ruling calling two-sex-only marriage unconstitutional, apparently was narrowly approved (there are still plenty of votes to be counted, but analyses suggest there aren't enough votes left to reverse things), making California the first state to make same-sex marriage illegal once it had already been recognized. Although California's constitutional amendment has received the most publicity this week, similar measures in Arizona and Floria also were approved; Florida's needed a 60% supermajority and got it. A measure that is in many ways more far-reaching, Arkansas Measure 1, was handily adopted, making it illegal for gay couples (or cohabitating couples, for that matter) to adopt children. California voters' apparent decision means that gay marriage has yet to be made legal in any state with by voter or legislative approval; so far, gay marriage in the United States is a court-ordered phenomenon.
  • Backers of doctor-assisted suicide: Initiative 1000 easily passed in Washington, making it the second state to explicitly allow the practice. The only other such state is Oregon, whose law also was the product of an initiative.
  • Opponents of affirmative action: Nebraska's initiative to end affirmative action was approved with 58 percent of the vote. A similar but more hotly contested measure, Colorado's Amendment 46, appears to be passing. An English-only measure was easily adopted in Missouri.
  • Payday borrowers: Ohio voters upheld a law that put a 28% cap on the interest rate charged by payday lenders, those offices of legal usury that exist throughout the country to serve people who can't afford their services. As a result, at least two payday lenders, Cash America and Cashland, have said they are curtailing their operations, and others may follow. Also, in Arizona, voters rejected a proposal supported by the payday loan industry.

And some losers:
  • Anti-abortion activists: It didn't come as much surprise that South Dakota voters rejected a far-reaching proposal to ban most abortions; even if it had passed, it would have been mostly symbolic as chances are that courts would have struck it down. But a less far-reaching measure in California, a parental-consent initiative also was rejected. So too was a radical Colorado proposal to redefine personhood as beginning at the time of conception. Michigan voters also passed a measure allowing embryonic stem cell research, although there are some restrictions on where the embryos can come from.
  • Anti-tax zealots: Let's face it: None of us, even those of use whose benefit considerably from government services (and that's basically all of us), like to pay taxes. But some anti-tax efforts simply go to far, and Massachusetts voters obviously saw that Tuesday as they rejected Question 1, to phase out the state income tax, by more than a 2-1 ratio.

And some that were winners and losers:

  • Gamblers: Maryland voters OK'd a measure to allow slot machines (but they're officially known as video terminals) as part of the state lottery, while Missouri voters repealed a loss limit in casinos. By winning the right to spend more, gamblers certainly will lose.
  • The Mormon church: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints was the most visible of the supporters of California's Proposition 8, although it was far from the only church supporting the proposal to ban gay marriage. After the election victory, though, the backlash has set in, which protesters appearing outside church temples in the Los Angeles area and Salt Lake City and others threatening a boycott of Utah (even though Salt Lake City has been gay-friendly enough to establish a "mutual commitment" registry to help gay couples qualify for employment benefits). Ironically, while California doesn't have enough Mormon voters to have made a difference in the final outcome, there have been no protests held in black and Latino neighborhoods, where voters backed the measure by as much at 70 percent.

03 November 2008

A resort to religious bigotry

Unfortunately, it almost goes without saying that an initiative on as emotional a topic as Proposition 8, the California measure that would in effect reverse the California Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage, will be promoted with distorted facts on both sides. Indeed, that is what has happened. Both sides seem to have forgot what that court decision and Proposition 8 are all about — almost nothing in terms of traditional legal rights. It is about whether a state-sanctioned same-sex union can be called marriage or not; if it passes, same-sex couples will still be able to get "married" and get every legal right except to call the union marriage in a legal sense. In at least a technical sense, Proposition 8 has nothing to do with what is taught in schools, as proponents have claimed, or with whether same-sex couples will be discriminated against in terms of government protections, as opponents have claimed.

Yet the campaigns of both sides have restored to distortions and half-truths, sometimes with outright misstatements, at other times when statements that are defensible in only the most technical of senses, and at other times hinting at things that aren't true (such as possibility that churches could be required to marry same-sex couples) without saying so directly.

And both sides, too, have resorted in one way or another to fear. Yet, at least until now, the campaigns haven't devolved into championing of outright religious bigotry. That is no longer the case, as this new TV ad shows:

True, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, popularly known as the Mormon Church, has opened itself up to this sort of attack by getting involved in the political process. But that doesn't make the attack acceptable as a part of the political process.

Imagine, if you will, if an ad had pictured two stereotypical rabbis doing the same thing (some Jewish groups have supported Proposition 8); the ad rightfully would have been seen as anti-Semitic. Or, to put the shoe on the other foot, suppose that one of the pro-8 ads had shown had shown scenes of stereotypical gay men molesting young boys they hope to adopt once they're married. Such an ad rightfully would have been condemned as bigoted and criticized as a new low. This ad should as well.