Politics & Policy

Friends With Benefits

Shaking up the marriage debate in Colorado.

The debate over gays and marriage in Colorado has recently taken a different turn from the national debate. Until a few weeks ago, the debate looked familiar. Gay-rights advocates were trying to get the legislature to enact a bill recognizing civil unions (or “domestic partnerships”) for same-sex couples. Social conservatives were trying to get voters to adopt a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage. Now conservative state senator Shawn Mitchell has changed the script by introducing legislation that grants some benefits to same-sex couples–with the support of James Dobson and Focus on the Family.

His legislation results from an asymmetry in the debate. One of the reasons many people support civil unions or same-sex marriage is to get certain practical advantages for gay couples. The main reason other people oppose these policies is that they do not want the government to recognize homosexual relationships as marital, or even as akin to marriage.

Mitchell’s idea is to make certain benefits available to gay couples–and to many other pairs of people. His legislation would make it easier, for example, for gay men to arrange to give each other a say in their medical care by becoming “reciprocal beneficiaries.” But two brothers, or a brother and sister, or two male friends, could enter the same arrangement. Thus there would be no recognition of homosexual relationships as such. (Hence Dobson’s support.)

No benefit would be contingent on any assumption by the government that the beneficiaries were involved in a sexual relationship outside traditional marriage. In extending the benefit, the state would be blind to the precise nature of the relationship between the beneficiaries.

Mitchell says that he got the idea for his legislation from an article I wrote in National Review last year. He modified my idea a little. I would have allowed couples who could legally marry to sign up as reciprocal beneficiaries. His legislation forbids them to sign up, presumably out of concern that doing so might keep them from marrying.

I didn’t propose this idea in the expectation that it would resolve the questions surrounding gays and marriage. It doesn’t give people who believe that gay marriage is a matter of civil rights any reason to stop working toward it, and it doesn’t give the opponents any reason to quit, either. It does not, that is, attempt to bring the debate to an end satisfactory to all sides (which would be impossible). But it does solve some practical problems in a way that nobody should find objectionable.

The politics of the proposal will vary sharply with circumstances. In Colorado, which has a Democratic legislature, liberals seem to think that they can get civil unions. Their initial reaction to Mitchell’s bill has therefore been to reject it as insufficient while offering a little praise to Mitchell for being willing to seek compromise. As the debate unfolds, however, it is possible that some Democrats will conclude that Mitchell’s approach offers progress for gay couples at low political risk. In more conservative states, where civil unions are off the table, a bill like Mitchell’s may look positively progressive and Democrats may wish to offer it themselves.

Ramesh Ponnuru, an NR senior editor, is at work on a book about the sanctity of life and American politics.

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