Law and Order

Another too-warm Vermont winter sputters to an end. My backyard, bereft of snow, is a mottled greenish-brown.

Over in Montpelier, America’s smallest state capital, legislators – about to return after town meeting recess – are bogged down (as are their counterparts across the nation) trying to cut spending quickly enough to keep pace with the plummeting economy.

While walking, the Democratic-controlled bodies have signaled their intent to also chew gum. In this case, the gum is a bill to legalize same-sex marriage. Vermont has experience in this department.

In the much snowier winter of 2000, Vermont became the first state in the union to legalize same-sex civil unions. (No state had legalized gay marriage at the time.) We were inundated by partisans from both sides of the issue. The “anti” crowd predicted that if civil unions were made law, chaos would ensue, it would be the end of marriage as we’d known it, Vermont would turn into the new Sodom.

The law was passed; then-Governor Howard Dean (D) signed it behind closed doors. (Strange metaphor, Howard.) Then, people got hitched in something that was sort of, but not quite like, marriage. Chaos did not ensue. Marriage as we knew it did not end. Vermont is not new Sodom.

What did happen is Democrats lost control of the state house of representatives in 2002, thanks in part to anti-civil union backlash. Two years later, the backlash subsided and the Democrats took back the house.

In the years intervening, Massachusetts and Connecticut legalized same-sex marriage and California grapples mightily. Here in Vermont, the debate doesn’t exactly rage. There are, to be sure, opponents of same-sex marriage, but it seems the legislation will pass both deliberative bodies. Republican Governor Jim Douglas told an editorial board the other day that he sees no need to go beyond the existing civil union law – but he did not say he would veto the bill.

Mr. Douglas, whose wet finger is always in the political wind, will count votes when the bill passes. If he thinks a veto will be overridden, he will let the bill become law without his signature and Vermont will seep, rather than march, into the future. So be it.

Those who oppose same-sex marriage no longer predict doom will follow in its wake. Instead, we hear it might open the door to legalized polygamy. I don’t see that happening, for two reasons. One, although Vermont is the birthplace of both Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, there’s not a big constituency for polygamy. Second – and more important – same-sex marriage is good law and polygamous marriage is bad law.

The only real interest a state should have in the marriage is law and order, with the emphasis on order. The law has an interest in seeing all citizens treated equally, regardless of whom they choose to marry. The law has an interest in seeing the most interested party (a spouse) has the right to make medical or legal decisions for an incapacitated person. The law has an interest in the orderly transfer of property upon a person’s death.

For all those reasons, it makes sense to allow a person to marry another person, regardless of whether they are of the same or opposite sex (or anywhere in between). In the case of polygamy, well, you can see where it would tend to confuse legal issues.

The other argument to which the “anti” crowd has been reduced is that one man and one woman are the necessary ingredients for making children. While I agree stable families are in society’s best interest, I haven’t seen any evidence that same-sex parents are less stable than dual-sex parents.

Worse, if the only justification for marriage is the production of children, a notion that sounds very Middle Ages, then not only should same-sex marriage be illegal, but also marriage for post-menopausal women or women who have had tubal ligations or men who have had vasectomies or people who are just plain infertile.

The problem with grasping at straws is, you wind up with a handful of straw. Law and order; equality before the law. Think about it.

© 2009, Mark Floegel

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