One More Time, From the Top

By Becky O’Malley
Thursday May 28, 2009 - 07:05:00 PM

Never thought I’d hear the word “empathy” used as a pejorative. (Definitions, for the one or two Republicans who might be be reading this: “Empathy: …the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another” and “pejorative: having negative connotations; especially: tending to disparage or belittle.” ) 

A Republican congressional pooh-bah was heard to say last week that if President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee exhibited any tendency to empathy, the GOP would just have to filibuster. Say what you will about the two major parties, only the Republicans would try to get away with promoting insensitivity as a virtue.  

Nonetheless, Sonia Sotomayor has gotten the nod, and even though she’s a member of a suspect category in the empathy arena (a female) it looks like she’ll make it to the court. Barring any unexpected revelations about her past, she’ll be the next member of the Supreme Court of the United States. 

Apparently no one did an empathy check before the current cast of characters took their seats in the California Supreme Court. Their pre-Prop. 8 decision which allowed 18,000 gay marriages demonstrated a commendable degree of empathy for the plight of those who were denied equal rights. But this empathy thing evidently can’t be taken too far, since yesterday the court ended up ruling in favor of the callous majority of California voters. 

That decision can be and will be criticized on legal grounds, but on human grounds (there’s that empathy again) it can most quickly be remedied at the ballot box. “Sensitivity training” was big in the 1970s, and it’s time to bring it back before same-sex marriage goes on the ballot again.  

The court’s decision was announced at 10 a.m. Tuesday, and by the time I got to the Derby Street farmer’s market at 2 p.m., the signature table, with an energetic recruiter, was already in place, and people were standing in line to sign. This means the vote will probably be sooner rather than later, so we’ve got our work cut out for us.  

The reason Proposition 8 won in the first place is that those of us who take same sex marriage for granted were too complacent. It’s encouraging to remember that the no-on-8 campaign was actually pretty perfunctory. We can do better. 

It’s tempting to say “take it to the streets!”, but trying to fight this fight with demonstrations and picket lines again would be counter-productive. Same-sex couples, especially those with children, have a story that’s not hard to sell, from a marketing perspective. It’s just a matter of soft-focus TV commercials of happy families chatting at the dinner table and tossing frisbees at the beach, and of neighborhood coffee hours where people of goodwill get together and share. 

It is hard to—here’s that word again—empathize with people who are sincerely frightened that they’ll lose something if gay people are allowed to marry. But the job at hand is to help them calm down a bit, to remind them that their world won’t end just because Sally and Marge, who already live down the street with their kids anyway, stand up in front of the preacher of their choice and promise to love and support one another. 

That preacher business, by the way … the unchurched among us can’t help wondering exactly why the state of California needs to tangle with the religious view of marriage. Devotees of any kind of religion have the constitutional right to refuse to bless the union of anyone they don’t like, but they shouldn’t be allowed to force their dogma on outsiders.  

The Catholic Church, for example, has traditionally refused to bless the remarriage of divorced people (not, of course, without a lot of fancy footwork around the definition of annulment.) But if the Catholics tried to extend this prohibition to cover members of other churches, there would be an uproar. So why is so much house room given to the equally sectarian desire to ban marriages between gay people, which are already allowed by several mainstream denominations no less respectable than Catholics? 

Perhaps times have changed, but in my youth at Catholic schools we were taught that marriage was a contract between the two parties before God, that the priest was only a witness, and that the state’s role was a legal matter outside the religious contract. In many countries still, e.g. France, this doctrine led to devout couples having two ceremonies, one at city hall and the other in church. Why do today’s bishops now think they have the right to impose their own prejudices even on people who don’t belong to their church? In this matter, as in many others, Catholic lay people are miles ahead of their supposed shepherds.  

Lawyers might look into challenging the right of organizations which benefit from the religious tax exemption to attempt to sway public policy at the ballot box. That’s a two-edged sword which should be approached cautiously, however, since the IRS has recently gone after an Episcopal church whose priest preached a sermon opposing the Iraq invasion, the kind of religious involvement many would support. 

One solution would be a ballot proposition to end the state’s participation in endorsing religious marriages. Everyone, religious or not, could get a state license to enter a civil contract which gave equal rights and privileges to all participants, and they’d also have the option of entering into the religious relationship of their choice without needing state approval. This could be a fallback if the attempt to repeal Proposition 8 fails. 

The rerun is likely to be on the ballot in 2010. Every recent poll indicates that the tide is turning—that it’s just a matter of harvesting the votes of those who didn’t connect with the no-on-8 campaign the last time. Sally and Marge, Jack and Frank and even Susie and Tom have got to make time in their schedules to walk precincts and host barbeques in the hinterlands to combat the pervasive fear of the unknown which put 8 over the top last time. If gay citizens and their family and friends just do all the conventional get-out-the-vote activities this time that they skipped last time, they have an excellent chance of winning the next round.