Recognizing the inevitable

There are two aspects to the debate on homosexual marriage held Tuesday before the California Supreme Court. One is strictly legal: Did San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom overstep his authority by having the city unilaterally issue marriage licenses to homosexual couples, and if so are those more than 4,000 licenses now invalid? From their statements, the justices seem to believe that, while Newsom acted illegally, lower courts would need to decide on the validity of the licenses.

The other aspect has to do with the long-range politics of marriage law as it applies to homosexuals. It seems clear to us that, no matter what the court decides, and despite the efforts of many to forbid homosexual marriage, eventually homosexuals will enjoy the same contractual rights as heterosexual people when it comes to domestic partnerships. With the legalization of homosexual marriage in Massachusetts, civil unions in Vermont and domestic-partnership arrangements in California and Hawaii, the historical trend is obvious. It’s just a matter of time before it spreads to other states.

One oft-made suggestion seems increasingly attractive to us. Why not just get government out of the marriage business altogether? The states could continue to issue civil-union contracts that confer the legal benefits and obligations now connected with marriage, leaving the spiritual dimension—marriage itself—to religious institutions.

Something like that has worked with divorce. Some churches forbid divorce, which is their right. But divorce is available for those who don’t share those churches’ values. Eventually and inevitably we will treat marriage, or civil unions, in much the same way. Why not start sooner rather than later?