By John Corvino
As readers of this column already know, the November ballot in Michigan is likely to include the following proposed amendment to our state constitution:
“To secure and preserve the benefits of marriage for our society and for future generations of children, the union of one man and one woman in marriage shall be the only agreement recognized as a marriage or similar union for any purpose.”
The amendment is similar to the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, with one key difference: unless we raise a lot of money and wage a strong campaign, this amendment actually has a chance of passing.
A recent poll of 600 Michigan residents found 61% supporting the amendment, while 43% said same sex couples should not be allowed to marry but should be allowed to enter civil unions. The poll’s margin of error was plus or minus 4 percentage points.
I’ll bet you anything that the vast majority of those 43% cannot explain the difference between marriage, which they want to forbid to gays, and civil unions, which they are willing to permit. (I’ll donate all proceeds from that bet to the Coalition for a Fair Michigan, which is fighting the amendmentÑsee www.coalitionforafairmichigan.org.)
The reason they can’t explain the difference is not that they’re stupid. It’s that the difference between marriage and civil unions is inherently (and somewhat deliberately) obscure.
“Civil unions” is a neologism invented by the State of Vermont in order to grant all the (statewide) incidents of marriage to gays without using the m-word. Instead of granting same-sex marriagesÑwhich would not have been recognized by the Federal government and might or might not have been recognized by other states, Vermont grants civil unionsÑwhich are not recognized by the Federal government and might or might not be recognized by other states.
Got that? Me neither.
Indeed, some have argued that the ONLY kind of union the government can recognize is a “civil” union (usually called “civil marriage,” to distinguish it from religious marriage). After all, we are not debating here what churches or other faith communities must do. They have their own rules about what kinds of unions they may recognize. Some recognize gay unions; some don’t. Some recognize the unions of previously divorced people; some don’t. And so on. Civil marriage and religious marriage are separate entities, despite the fact that they often occur together.
Michigan does not recognize the marriages of same-sex couples, and it is not likely to for a long time. Let’s face it: Michigan is not Massachusetts.
Nor does Michigan recognize civil unions. However, various state agencies do provide domestic partner benefits, such as health insurance, to their employees. That would end if the proposed amendment passes, since the amendment prohibits “similar union[s]” to marriage “for any purpose.”
Which presents opponents of the amendment with a dilemma. We want to appeal to those moderate voters who are against equal marriage but for domestic partner benefits. So we are tempted to argue, “This is not about equal marriage!” (After all, marriage between same-sex couples is already prohibited in Michigan.) But in doing so, we seem to concede that allowing equal marriage would indeed be a terrible thing.
This implied concession is bad for two reasons: (1) It’s false. (2) If equal marriage is a terrible thing, then civil unions and domestic-partner benefits may not be so great either. And that’s not exactly the message we want to send in trying to defeat the amendment.
In order to get around this dilemma, I typically employ the following three-point strategy when talking about the proposed amendment:
(1) EVEN IF this were about equal marriage rights for gays, so what? Giving marriage to gays doesn’t mean taking it away from straights, after all.
(2) But it’s not about equal marriage! There are already three laws against equal marriage rights in Michigan.
(3) What the amendment would doÑimmediately and concretelyÑis take away domestic-partner benefits from state employees. A vote for the amendment is a vote against these people’s benefits.
I am not suggesting that we turn the debate over this amendment into a debate over equal marriage rights. Indeed, I think it’s important for people to realize that they can consistently be against BOTH equal marriage and this amendment (much as we would prefer them to be for one and against the other).
But neither should we allow our rhetorical strategy to suggest that equal marriage is some horrible threat that must be stopped at all costs. There is not such a limited supply of love in the world that we need to deny it to anyone.