In the sphere of human rights there comes a time when people of conscience are morally required to stand up and declare what they believe is right based on principles of justice and fairness, not for themselves but for others. While this may be especially true for politicians, opinion leaders, parents, religious figures and the like, it doesn’t end there; it is the moral duty of every citizen in a free society, and arguably the duty of every human being in any society, to take a stance on issues of conscience. Being a bystander may be convenient and comfortable, but it doesn’t meet the test. For me, as a prominent publicly identified Republican, the time is now and the issue is same-sex marriage. As the controversy continues to swirl around us and people have begun to take sides, I feel it is time to state my own opinion; that is to declare my support for the right of same-sex couples to marry.
This, of course, doesn’t take any particular courage on my part. For me personally the stakes are low, but for others the consequences are high. Selfishly, when the history of the consequences of our time is written, I want to be recorded by my friends and family as having been on the right side, on the side of those who seek equal rights for all. In my view, the outcome of this debate is inevitable, but for now the question is how long it will take to get there and at what cost to the American fabric.
There were times before when I wanted to step into this fray, but the point seemed moot. The matter went to the Court; polls began to shift in favor of same sex-marriage; and 131 Republicans activists stepped forward to lend their support in an amicus brief to the court. No less a conservative voice than Ted Olsen has defended the rights of same-sex couples to marry, as have Meg Whitman, David Frum, Ken Mehlman, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Rep. Richard Hanna, Sen. Rob Portman and Sen. Mark Kirk. Unfortunately, last Friday the Republican National Committee unanimously passed a resolution reiterating its opposition to same-sex marriage. Therefore, I can no longer be silent on the issue.
The arguments to allow same-sex marriage to proceed and be recognized are many. Even if the Supreme Court finds no constitutional right, Federalism, which Republicans hold dear, would at least allow states to decide the issue for themselves (Proposition 8 aside, it can only be a matter of time before Californians make this choice). From a pure political standpoint, Republicans are playing a losing hand, with public attitudes shifting, especially among young voters (Gallop found that 73 percent of voters aged 18-29 favor legalization). Philosophically, the party that supports individual freedom, commitment and less government intrusion ought to get out of the way of people wanting to express their individual liberties. In another example, the “death tax” that Republicans oppose also falls unfairly on unmarried same-sex couples; for married couples the government doesn’t collect their levy until the second partner dies. Not true for same-sex couples who may own a business or a house together and be forced to sell to pay the taxman when their partner dies.
It is easy to be taken in by some for the arguments against same-sex marriage. Since switching my own thinking on the subject and discussing it with friends — notably both Democrats and Republicans — I hear them all the time: “You can’t redefine a word”; “This will undermine ‘traditional’ marriage”; “I am in favor of civil unions, but not marriage”; and on and on. This is all nonsense; it sounds logical, but is not.
The concept of traditional marriage is a nice fairy tale: Boy meets (virginal) girl; they fall in love; their nuclear families walk them down the aisle; they have children and live together faithfully until death. So this is marriage. Except that it doesn’t always happen that way anymore. People cohabitate before marriage; they get divorced, they remarry (for some this cycle repeats itself over and over — all are called marriage). If a 90-year-old near-senile man marries a 20ish gold-digger, that’s a legally recognized marriage. If two strangers meet at a Las Vegas casino one night and run off half-drunk to the local chapel to get married — that’s a legally recognized marriage. If a high school teacher who goes to jail for having sex with an underage boy marries that boy when she is through serving her term and he has reached adulthood — that’s a legally recognized marriage. If a woman falls in love with a serial killer awaiting execution on death row, corresponds with him and they decide to marry — that’s a legally recognized marriage. But if two men who are committed to each other and live together for 50 years wish to be married, somewhere along the way we can’t call this marriage?
Fundamentally, we as Americans believe that we are all entitled to be free and to pursue our own dreams and happiness (while we think this is some uniquely American idea, consider that same-sex marriage is already legal in Argentina, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Iceland, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, South Africa, Spain and Sweden as well as in some parts of other countries). I do not see how allowing same-sex couples to have the same right that I have to get married will in any way diminish my own freedom or my own happiness. How? Which right will I lose? (Rights, fortunately, are not a zero-sum game.) Why is something that is allowed for me denied to someone else? Where is the concept of fairness in all this?
I am hoping that other Republicans will step forward along with me and tell our party leadership that they are making a mistake. Now is the time to get on the record, one way or the other. Abstaining from an important moral issue is not a choice.
Joel Geiderman is California chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition and former vice chairman of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, appointed by President George W. Bush. The views expressed by the author are his own and do not represent the official views of any organization with which he is currently or was previously affiliated.