Politics & Policy

Keeping An Option Open

Thinking through the gay-marriage debate practically.

Amazingly, my article on the possibility of a limited compromise in the battles over gay marriage has not received universal or, indeed, any acclaim. I have instead received two reactions. Most of my readers have said that there is no point to seeking compromise of any sort–the general argument being that gay activists want marriage and will settle for nothing less. As though to confirm this argument, the rest of my correspondents have been advocates of gay marriage who maintained that nothing less than full equality–which they understood, of course, as gay marriage–was acceptable.

Maggie Gallagher is one of those who think that I am wrong to suggest that the “fourth option” would reduce the rancor of the marriage debate or even “affect” its course. Before I get to that point, let me address the cautionary note she raises to the fourth option as a policy. She says she has “no very strong objection” to it, but wants eligibility for any new legal arrangement to exclude people who are or could be married to each other. For reasons explained in my article, I do not think this exclusion is necessary. Just as letting people form contracts and limited partnerships for certain purposes has not even arguably undermined marriage, neither would the sort of arrangements I am discussing do so. Also, I suspect that the exclusion would be unworkable.

On to (what I take to be) Gallagher’s main point. It may very well be true that pro-gay-marriage activists would not settle for the fourth option. I never suggested that they would and, as Gallagher says, given their sincere convictions it would be surprising if they did. But I was not offering a compromise that would forever settle the issue of marriage. I was suggesting that the contending parties in the debate ought to be able to agree on certain practical steps that would address some of the benefit issues in that debate while continuing to argue over the issue of recognition. Addressing those benefit issues does not concede that existing marriage laws are discriminatory. It acknowledges that those benefit issues can be addressed without changing the marriage laws. I’d think Gallagher would be happy to see that point made.

Even if pro-gay-marriage activists rejected option four as a distraction (or worse) from their larger goal, it would not follow that the option would have no political effects. The debate is not limited to the activists on both sides. There are also many voters who are ambivalent, leaning against same-sex marriage but wanting to address some of the practical concerns of gay couples. Gallagher’s analysis ignores their views and, indeed, their existence. As I suggested in my article, the potential upside of option four for opponents of same-sex marriage is that it would keep some of those ambivalent voters from defecting (or practically defecting) to the pro-gay-marriage camp. The potential upside for proponents of gay marriage is that it would grant gay couples benefits that many couples say they want.

I can understand criticism of particular compromises on the merits; I make such criticisms all the time. But I don’t think the search for compromise should be rejected out of hand. And even if option four wouldn’t make the marriage debate any less socially divisive, as I suggested it would, it would still be worth doing on the merits.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.


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