Gay marriage is one of those extremely uncomfortable issues that many people wish would just go away. If that doesn't work, perhaps we can legislate it away.
But the recent Massachusetts Supreme Court ruling is proof that it will not go away quietly or easily. For practical as well as constitutional reasons, it must be dealt with and resolved.
The majority opinion written by the court's chief justice rests firmly on a bedrock principle of this country — individual rights. That is, government cannot deny the benefits and protections of law — in this case the marriage statute — to one particular group — in this case homosexuals.
That principle will continue to drive this issue in the legal arena. Meanwhile, public opinion will drive debate in the political arena; while some people strongly oppose gay marriage, many people take a live-and-let-live attitude. A poll in Massachusetts found about half of respondents agreed with the state supreme court ruling, while less that 40 percent disagreed.
In the legal arena, even constitutional scholars are divided on whether bringing the benefits and protections provided in marriage statutes within reach of homosexuals requires redefining marriage itself. While the Massachusetts Supreme Court said yes, the Vermont Legislature a few years ago said no — that those statutory benefits and protections can be provided through something called civil union.
At the time, this newspaper supported Vermont's approach, and we see no reason at this juncture to change that position. Marriage has been defined for millennia as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman that is the foundation for the nuclear family. It is the most fundamental and important of all human relationships in terms of perpetuating humankind and maintaining a cohesive social structure. It is a definition deeply engrained in culture, tradition, law and religion. By its incredibly enduring nature alone, it should not be redefined without a lot of serious thought and discussion.
Recognizing and respecting that, however, does not rule out recognizing — culturally and legally — other kinds of human relationships. And that is the direction in which we'd like to see this debate move.
Regardless of one's view of homosexual relationships, the practical reality is that they exist. And they will not be wished or legislated away; the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down sodomy laws — not that such laws had much if any influence on individuals' private lives while they were on the books.
Given the fact that there are such relationships, and the desire of many of those in such relationships to affirm their commitment legally — as well as to share in the same benefits and protections afforded married couples — it is hard to see how that would harm society or weaken the traditional institution of marrage.
After all, how your neighbors live shouldn't determine how you live. If you are in a long-term, loving, committed relationship with your spouse, the sad fact that roughly half of all marriages dissolve in divorce shouldn't affect you and yours.
Which brings us back to the principle that will drive the gay-marriage issue: individual rights. The majority can and should have a say in whether an institution as deeply rooted in our culture is redefined. But the majority cannot deny a minority — or even a single individual — equal protection of the laws.
Ultimately we must find a way to bring the statutory benefits and protections of traditional marriage within reach of those who are in same-gender relationships. Vermont's solution — creation of the civil union statute — seems to us to be the best approach.