One of the biggest election stories of 2006 was the non-story of the New Jersey Supreme Court’s decision to offer the equivalent of Civil Unions to gay couples. What was most striking about the ruling was the lack of shock value compared to the title wave of raw emotion that gripped the nation when Vermont’s high court mandated a similar judicial remedy in 1999.
The news broke at 3PM, so I expected major coverage that evening on the network news. However, the story did not air on NBC until the broadcast was more than two-thirds finished. And, when the topic was finally addressed, it was a short reader from anchor Brian Williams. If you quickly pranced off to the bathroom or momentarily zoned out, you might have missed the story altogether.
Meanwhile, the mess in Mesopotamia dominated the first two blocks of that same newscast, with October’s death toll of American troops surpassing one hundred. This is a nightmare for a Republican party desperate to make hay out of all things gay by focusing obsessively on New Jersey. But things are now so bad in Baghdad that even Karl Rove, the master of homophobic campaigns, is having a difficult time averting the nation’s gaze to focus on the gays.
The laughable line that conservative pundits are now pushing is that the Garden State ruling will mobilize previously depressed social conservative voters. The conventional wisdom is that this was a shot in the arm that will jumpstart the Pat Robertson crowd to vote in force.
This expectation is as irrational as it is unreasonable. Why would a weak and politically safe New Jersey civil unions ruling provide motivation to vote if 8,000 real marriage licenses already issued in Massachusetts weren’t doing the trick? Sure, it did put the issue back in the headlines, but it was merely an ephemeral two day story that likely had no lasting impact. I’m not saying that the timing of the ruling was helpful, but it is turning out to be more of a wedgie than a wedge issue – a minor annoyance, but certainly not a divisive debate that could determine the outcome of a crucial election.
If anything, the New Jersey decision weakened the religious right’s overplayed hand on this issue. It is hard to make the case that Kansas is in danger of honeymooning homos when the GLBT community can’t even win full marriage rights from one of the most liberal courts in the nation.
The dust is nearly settled and it appears that the path to marriage rights will run through state capitals. In the next fifteen years we are likely to hear less about marriage, while we see the enactment of Civil Unions or domestic partnership laws.
This is because the GLBT community has finally convinced mainstream Americans that they are worthy of similar relationship benefits, such as hospital visitation and inheritance rights. However, we have not cleared the tall hurdle of persuading a majority that we can share the M-Word without wrecking the institution more than they already have.
Of course, we will eventually win this battle. But it is increasingly apparent that GLBT people will be forced to run the requisite minority obstacle course until the masses finally understand that creating a system of different laws for different people is inherently unfair and discriminatory.
At the federal level, the marriage debate is officially dead. If a Beltway packed to the rafters with Bible Belt Republicans could not pass the Federal Marriage Amendment following the Massachusetts decision, it is highly unlikely to happen now. Congress already passed the Defense of Marriage Act, which stipulates that a state does not have to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state. And supposedly friendly courts, such as Washington State and New York, sided against equality.
In essence, the conservative principle of states rights will be the prism in which this battle is increasingly played out. This will make it more and more difficult to use gay marriage as a national political football. After all, what is the use of a Federal Marriage Amendment when the battles are taking place in state legislatures?
In the midterm elections, it will be an uphill battle to drum up support on the New Jersey decision when most of the electorate considers the issue so humdrum. The GOP attack machine can be as uncivil as they like, but Civil Unions no longer cause fright or have the bite to unite Prozac Protestants who have found the Congressional Republican leadership as depressing as the rest of Americans.
New Jersey represented one of the GLBT community’s last great hopes of winning immediate marriage rights. Without such a clear-cut victory, however, the marriage between the GOP and "values voters" in this election is a product of wishful thinking. Much to the chagrin of the GOP, voters are finally more concerned about the civil war in Iraq, than Civil Unions in New Jersey.