Columns » Warwick Sabin

Leaving the door cracked

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U.S. Sens. Blanche Lincoln and Mark Pryor this month voted against the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, making Arkansas the only Southern state besides Maryland to unanimously oppose the measure in the Senate.

That’s pretty remarkable, considering less than two years ago our state passed its own constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage with an overwhelming 75 percent of the popular vote.

Even more remarkable were Lincoln’s and Pryor’s explanations for why they voted against the federal amendment. In no way did they disagree with its stated purpose.

“I oppose same-sex marriage,” Lincoln said. “Throughout my life, my religious faith has guided my strong belief that marriage is only between a man and a woman. I support the current federal law that grants states the right not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.”

Pryor offered similar comments.

“I oppose gay marriage,” he said. “In 2004, I supported the amendment to the Arkansas Constitution to ensure the status of marriage in our state remains only between a man and woman. I support the federal law we already have on the books, the Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between only a man and a woman and further declares that no state is required to honor a same-sex relationship sanctioned by another state.”

So here we have two people who express unqualified opposition to same-sex unions and who supported state and federal prohibition of the practice, but who still refused to ban it once and for all. What prevented them from taking that final step?

There are signs that their hesitation reflects a broader national trend when it comes to feelings about same-sex marriage. By refusing to close the door completely on the possibility of allowing gays to marry, the senators actually left it cracked open.

That’s because the June 7 vote on the Federal Marriage Amendment was probably the best opportunity its proponents will ever have to pass the measure. The political climate favored them, since polls still indicate that a majority of Americans oppose same-sex unions. For instance, a new American Enterprise Institute study shows that “roughly six in ten Americans believe that gay marriage should not be recognized by the law as valid.”

But the anti-gay-marriage forces may never again have such an advantage. Attitudes are changing, and they have been moving for some time toward equal treatment of homosexual partnerships.

The same study cited the following survey data:

• Eighty-nine percent of Americans believe that homosexuals should have equal rights in terms of job opportunities. In 1977, 56 percent felt that way.

• Attitudes toward homosexuality have also changed since Gallup started polling on the subject in 1982. That year, 34 percent of those surveyed said that homosexuality should be an acceptable alternative lifestyle. In May 2006, 54 percent gave that response.

• The country is also split on the subject of allowing gay and lesbian couples to adopt a child, with 49 percent favoring the idea in a new ABC News/Time poll and 48 percent opposed. In 1977, 14 percent favored gay adoption.

Furthermore, young Americans consistently support same-sex marriage at rates far higher than older generations, which is a good indication that public opinion on the subject will continue to evolve.

Included among the study’s statistics was one more recent poll that brings us back to the difficult decision confronted by Lincoln and Pryor: “Americans are divided about a constitutional amendment to bar gay marriage. Fifty percent supported such an amendment according to a May 2006 Gallup survey while 47 percent opposed it.”

Therefore, even a population that is firmly opposed to legalizing same-sex marriage is less certain about pulling the trigger on a final solution that is consistent with its beliefs.

Until recently, the subject of gay marriage made most people squeamish. But now it appears that the idea of definitively and permanently banning gay marriage is making people squeamish.

That’s what happened with Lincoln and Pryor, after all. Their views on gay marriage couldn’t be clearer, and yet they still couldn’t bring themselves to ensure its demise.

It’s the surest sign yet that we’ve reached a tipping point in this debate.


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