It's time for gay covenant marriage.

Science, technology, and life.
April 29 2006 8:22 AM

Solemnize Me

It's time for gay covenant marriage.

Dearly beloved, we are gathered to join together these two ideas in holy matrimony. On the right, covenant marriage, an option legalized by some states but widely shunned as too conservative. On the left, gay marriage, an option widely sought but outlawed as too radical. Covenant marriage, in which spouses choose to make divorce more difficult, has become a forlorn maiden, a home without a constituency. Meanwhile, the gay marriage movement has become a frustrated suitor, a constituency without a home. Let us bless them, that they may join as one flesh: gay covenant marriage.

How did these two young movements come to be so perfectly made for each other? The story begins many years ago, when gays and lesbians, having campaigned for a right to privacy and then for equal treatment in the workplace, sought legal recognition as families. As their ambitions grew, so did resistance. In states where judges gave them the right to marry, voters took it away. Two years ago, after the highest court in Massachusetts ruled that gay residents could no longer be denied marriage, voters passed ballot measures against the practice in 13 states. A few weeks from today—on 6/6/06, for those of you keeping track in your copy of Revelation—the U.S. Senate will vote on a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

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Supporters of gay equality think they can demand marriage like any other right. They call it "marriage equality" or "freedom to marry." But in the minds of most Americans, not all freedoms—or equalities—are equal. Three years ago, in a Pew Research survey, 80 percent of Americans agreed that gays shouldn't face "restrictions on sex between consenting adults in the privacy of their own home." Nevertheless, 56 percent worried that same-sex marriage "would undermine the traditional American family." In Gallup polls on homosexuality, support for "equal rights in terms of job opportunities" approaches 90 percent, but solid majorities oppose offering gay couples the "same rights as traditional marriages." Last month, a Pew survey found that majorities think gays should be allowed to serve openly in the military but not to marry.

Why do people who tolerate gay equality in other realms of life draw the line at marriage? Look at a letter recently signed by 50 religious leaders in support of the constitutional amendment. Marriage "sustains civil society," they write. "When marriage is entered into and gotten out of lightly, when it is no longer the boundary of sexual activity, or when it is allowed to be radically redefined, a host of personal and civic ills can be expected to follow." Divorce and illegitimacy were bad enough, the letter warns; now courts are twisting marriage into "an elastic concept able to accommodate almost any individual preference."

This is what keeps same-sex marriage, unlike sexual privacy or workplace equality, on the wrong side of public opinion. Marriage isn't like a job or a tryst. It's an honor and a responsibility. You can't assume or demand it; you have to earn it. The whole point of marriage is that it's bigger than you. It's usually about kids, and it's always about commitment. Suing for it in the name of freedom or equal access rubs people the wrong way. It sounds like you're trying to loosen the commitment or stretch the boundaries to suit you. Marriage doesn't come to you. You have to come to marriage.

That's what inspired the covenant marriage movement. Beginning in 1997, Louisiana, Arizona, and Arkansas enacted laws making covenant marriage an option. If you buy in, here are the rules: Before marrying, you have to go through counseling. You have to affirm orally and in writing that your marriage is "for life," that you accept its "responsibilities," that you've "chosen each other carefully," that you've "disclosed to one another everything" important to the marital decision, and that you'll "take all reasonable efforts to preserve our marriage, including marital counseling." Divorce takes longer than today's no-fault dissolutions, and the grounds are narrower. The prescribed waiting period is usually two years.

The pioneers of covenant marriage thought their followers would flock to it. They were wrong. In states conservative enough to promote it, fewer than one in 100 marrying couples has chosen this option—about 6,000 to 7,000 couples, judging from published data. Meanwhile, in states liberal enough to permit same-sex marriage or civil unions, thousands of gay couples have signed up—more than 7,300 in Massachusetts, 1,200 in Vermont (6,600 more if you count out-of-staters), and 700 in Connecticut. More than 3,700 gay couples have registered for domestic partnerships in New Jersey; another 30,000 or so have registered in California. Despite being absurdly outnumbered, more blue-state gay couples than red-state straight couples are signing up for as much commitment as the law allows. And that's not counting gay couples agitating for marriage in other states.

So here's what we have: On the right, empty pews in the church of commitment. On the left, people fighting to get in. It's a match made in heaven. There's just one problem: Covenant marriage laws exclude same-sex couples.

If covenant marriage were opened to gays, many on the left would spurn it. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force calls it "reactionary" and chafes even at the notion of pre-divorce counseling. Last year, when Gov. Mike Huckabee, R-Ark., upgraded his marriage to a covenant, activists crashed the ceremony with a banner demanding "Queer Equality." Moderate gay organizations, however, have yet to weigh in. Two years ago, John O'Sullivan, editor-at-large of National Review, mused on the possibility of calling their bluff. "Just how many gay couples would sign up for a marriage that really was lifelong?" he asked. "It would be a searching test of consistency. And it would also settle the question of whether gays seeking marriage are seeking public commitment to a lifelong partnership or merely absolutely equal status for homosexuality."

Fair enough. But the test goes both ways. In their foundational statement on marriage, Catholic, Baptist, and evangelical leaders claim to be defending it against cohabitation, divorce, and "diminishing interest in and readiness for marrying." They call for "mentor couples" and "influence within society" to promote marriage. Can you imagine a more powerful influence than finding out that the gay couple down the block has a stronger marriage than you do? Can you imagine a more powerful way for that couple to earn society's respect? Here's a chance to get more marriage, less cohabitation, and less divorce. Is that what conservatives want? Or would they rather keep out the gays?

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