Saturday, February 19, 2011

Same-Sex Marriage - An Academic Viewpoint

The Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton has a world-wide reputation as a center of excellence in its field. It boasts such distinguished alumni as Senator Bill Bradley, Governor Brendan Byrne, New Jersey Chief Justice Stuart Rabner, Governor Eliot Spitzer, and Senator Paul Sarbanes. Alumni also include some prominent but disappointing people like Congressman Leonard Lance and Justice Samuel Alito.

As part of its academic mission, the school conducts seminars and panel discussions, some of which are open to the public. Given the enthusiasm and need for marriage equality in New Jersey and across the country, when I saw a seminar entitled “Same Sex Marriage in the United States: Where We Are as a Nation”, I figured it was worth the drive up to Princeton to see what I could learn - and I was not disappointed.

The lecture hall was filled with students, and people were standing around the periphery to hear what the speakers had to say.

The panel was introduced by Elizabeth Donohue, the school’s assistant dean. She pointed out that these seminars are normally initiated by faculty, and this was one of the few that was suggested by a student, “PJ,” a first year master’s candidate in the school.

There were three panelists from different walks of life. Each presented the case for same-sex marriage from a viewpoint that leaned more toward academic than advocacy. Interestingly, as far as I can remember, none of the panel members used the positive term “marriage equality” but rather referred to “same-sex marriage.”

Sean Eldridge is the Political Director of Freedom to Marry, an advocacy organization. He was guardedly optimistic about progress that has been made, pointing out that when President Obama took office, only two states allowed same-sex marriage; now the number is five plus the District of Columbia. His group is working toward three goals - winning over more states, ending federal discrimination against same-sex couples, and growing majority support. On that last item, he stated that public opinion will go a long way in ending discrimination and that he wanted to grow the 52% of the population who he said currently support same-sex marriage. His organization expects three more states (New York, Maryland, and Rhode Island) with marriage-friendly governors to enable same-sex marriage in the next few months; California could be added to that list with a favorable court decision on Proposition 8. Two more states (Maine and Oregon) are target candidates in 2012.

Suzanne Goldberg, Director, Center for Gender and Sexuality Law at Columbia Law School, presented a brief history of the fight for same-sex marriage rights in the US. She talked about how in the 70s a court amazingly used a dictionary definition instead of the Constitution to strike down gay marriage statutes. She gave an excellent description of the different legal arguments that have been used to defend marriage, and pointed out that states representing about 30% of the American population recognize some forms of same-sex partnerships. Also, today about a dozen countries provide full marriage rights to same-sex couples.

The final speaker was Father Joseph Palacios, the founder of Catholics for Equality. He discussed the attitude about same-sex marriage within various religions and pointed out that although many young Catholics are anti-choice, they are generally unopposed to same-sex marriage. Within highly-Catholic Spanish-speaking nations, same-sex marriage is recognized in Argentina, Spain, and Mexico, as well as Portugal. He explained that in those areas citizens don’t want their church meddling in politics and that gay marriage is a pro-life issue when viewed holistically; it is pro-family and pro-child.

I wasn’t able to stick around for the Q&A session after the presentations, so I don’t know if there were any marriage discrimination proponents in the audience. But it was refreshing to hear the case for gay marriage in a dispassionate academic setting among some very smart people. Although progress is being made slowly, I was encouraged that these experts felt that the nations is moving toward full equality.

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  1. I can only imagine how academically stimulating it must have been to hear three panelists with identical viewpoints.

    Had I been there to ask a question, I would have asked Sean Eldridge why he even cares about public opinion, when it is obviously the plan to use "favorable court decisions" to push this through regardless of public opinion.

  2. Glen, I obviously don't speak for Eldridge but I believe his point was twofold: First, just like banning interracial marriage, banning same sex marriage is unconstitutional (see ). Ultimately, the courts may be the way to go to achieve full marriage equality. But just like the civil rights movement needed a combination of legislation (e.g. the 1964 Civil Rights Act) and court decisions, so may the fight for full rights for gays and lesbians. And that legislation obviously requires public opinion to be favorable to marriage equality.

    The good news is that the younger generation understands the need for full rights for gays and lesbians better than our generation does.

    The fight for civil rights for African-Americans took a long time, and it's not complete yet. So will the fight for equal rights for all Americans.