Thursday, March 16, 2006

Dean Johnson, Court tamperer?

Democrat Dean Johnson, majority leader in the Minnesota Senate, has been caught on tape saying he had talked to several state Supreme Court justices about gay marriage, and they assured him that the current law restricting marriage to a man and a woman would not be overturned -- meaning that a gay-marriage amendment is unnecessary.

In the recording - made without Johnson's knowledge - he says he had talked with two of the three justices named Anderson on the bench and they had told him, "Dean, we're not going to do this. We're not going to do this." He also said former Chief Justice Kathleen Blatz, who recently stepped down, told him, "'We're not going to touch it."'

If true, Johnson and the justices committed a serious ethical breach. Justices are not supposed to discuss pending cases or make committments on how they'll vote.

The justices deny it and Johnson says he chose his words poorly. But it's hard to imagine any other meaning for what he said. So either he was emptily boasting then, or is lying now.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with whether gay marriage is a good idea or not; it's just hardball politics driven by disagreement over gay marriage. And I think it points up the lack of substantive arguments against gay marriage, especially as framed here in Minnesota.

The proposed amendment would ban not only gay marriage but also civil unions. One can believe that homosexuality is immoral, but that's not an argument for denying gays the legal benefits of marriage. Public policy should be based on objective facts or principles, not personal dislike or religious prohibitions.

And the case against gay marriage has no objective basis. "It will harm marriage?" Nonsense. "Marriage is for procreation?" Nonsense, and besides, gays are conceiving and adopting children in ever-increasing numbers. "It indicates societal approval of gays?" Not true, unless we think that recognizing third and fourth marriages mean we approve of serial monogamists.

Gay marriage isn't about societal approval; it's about keeping the government's nose out of people's private business. If the state can show a compelling interest in providing support to marriage, it may do so -- but it must establish neutral criteria that narrowly address its interest, and provide support to anyone who meets those criteria -- regardless of gender, age, moral character or any other irrelevant factor.

For centuries marriage was a purely civil institution, and did not involve churches. The perfect solution would be to return to a form of that, in which "marriages" are performed by churches and the state recognizes only "civil unions." "Civil unions for everyone, marriage if you want one and can find a church willing to perform the ceremony" would allow all couples to have the same legal rights while letting churches establish their own standards for marriage.

But I don't foresee that happening in the near future. And until it does, gay marriage -- or "civil unions" that provide the same legal benefits as marriage -- is simply the right thing to do.

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