Mansfield Fox

Law student. Yankees fan. Massive fraggle. Just living the American dream.

Friday, April 22, 2005

Connecticut and Civil Unions

So my current home state approved same-sex civil unions on Wednesday, making it the first state to do so not under a court order of some kind. This is a major, though not unexpected, defeat for the forces of social conservatism, equal, I think, to the victories we had at the polls last fall.

What's astonishing, though, is how thin the discourse on this issue has been. The Marriage Debate blog has just one post on the subject, and it's a link to a news article. Ditto Family Scholars. Our conservative friends to the east, Anchor Rising and Dust in the Light mention it not at all. The big dogs in the fight, like the Corner, have been basically silent on this issue. Indeed, the only blog that seems to be covering this with any degree of thoroughness is Connecticut in the Crosshairs, the blog of the Family Institute of Connecticut ACTION group.

Now, I'm not a big "tell other people what to blog about" kind of guy, but I do think the widespread silence (including, I must say, on my part up until now) is telling of a couple of things. One is how far the discourse has shifted over the past five years. In an effort to fend off gay marriage, conservatives have on occasion found themselves advocating as a compromise position something (civil unions - that is, marriage in all but name) that just five years ago seemed extraordinarily radical. I think this is a bad course of action morally, strategically and tactically, but it's nonetheless the one that many, including sometimes the President, have chosen to take.

The other thing is the risk of tying ourselves too tightly to the anti-judicial activism issue, or indeed any process issue. Most of the early gay marriage / civil unions cases - in Hawai'i, Vermont and Massachusetts - have emerged out of lawsuits. It was easy then to attack gay marriage as just another example of judicial imperialism in the Roe v. Wade tradition. Others, in New York and California, involved local executive officials issuing marriage licenses in violation of state law, which could again be objected to on procedural grounds.

But as anti-gay marriage forces were making their procedural (that is: who decides and how?) objections, they lost out on an opportunity to make and hone their substantive objections. This is, in some sense, the mirror opposite of the liberal dependence on activist judges to enact their agenda. Social conservatives became too dependent on simply decrying judicial activism as a way of attacking the liberal agenda, which meant that, when liberals made their move in a non-judicial forum conservatives were left, to put it mildly, flat-footed. Having ceded so much, what serious attack was there left for us to make on this issue? As William at Southern Appeal pointed out, at least they did it through ordinary democratic processes.

So what is to be done? Sadly, probably not much. We can try to throw out those who voted for the measure and elect new legislators who will repeal the civil unions bill. But in a heavily Democratic state whose Republicans are all social liberals, that seems an unlikely possibility. So I suspect, for the time being at least, that we'll just have to live with it. The important thing, I think, is the long term thing: we have to get to work building a healthy society, one built on the twin pillars of Centesimus Annus and Evangelium Vitae. That's our best hope. The law is important, because the law is a teacher, but it remains largely an epiphenomenon of culture. Fix the culture, and the law will follow.

Speaking of Centesimus Annus, I was recently at a lecture on Catholic social teaching by one of the heads of the Centesimus Annus Pro Pontifice institute in Rome, and one of the audience members made an interesting point vis a vis Connecticut: although she's one of the most Catholic states in the country, she manifests to a remarkable extent many of the ills against which Catholic social teaching warns. The state features extremes of wealth and poverty (Greenwich and Bridgeport, for instance). It's apparently one of the few states with a rising abortion rate. And now it's hopped onto the train to gay marriage. A reminder, I guess, that being "Catholic" isn't enough, and of the need for vigorous re-evangelization within the Church Herself. St Charles Borromeo, pray for us!