We have had almost 10 years of gay marriage in Canada and, as far as anyone can tell, the family unit has not gone to hell in a handbasket. Polygamists are not clamouring for marriage equality. And the institution of marriage has not fallen any further in esteem than it already had by 2003.
Opposition to gay marriage is now associated with the fringes of Canadian politics. The issue is as controversial as the Queen; few people get excited about either. Besides, gay people aren’t exactly rushing to the justice of the peace. There were only 21,000 married same-sex couples in Canada in 2011.
This makes the debate now unfolding in the United States seem rather old-fashioned. The U.S. Supreme Court will hear two gay marriage cases this week that beg for landmark decisions. But it’s unclear whether a majority of judges will comply or simply send the issue back to the voters.
What’s clear is that the ascension of same-sex marriage to the top of the docket has stirred passions. The debate has everyone from the Heritage Foundation to the Clintons staking their ground, as much to influence the outcome as to ensure their political self-preservation.
Support for gay marriage became Democratic orthodoxy once President Barack Obama outlined his evolution from opponent to proponent in 2011. But neither Bill nor Hill weighed in then.
Bill Clinton did endorse New York State’s 2011 move to legalize gay marriage. But his spellbinding speech at the 2012 Democratic convention touched on every topic dear to Democrats except gay rights. That drew a stinging rebuke from New York Times columnist Frank Bruni, who asked Mr. Clinton to apologize for signing the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act.
DOMA, which is one of the laws the top court is being asked to strike down, prohibits the federal government from recognizing gay marriages. Same-sex couples who married outside the country or in one of the nine states that allow such unions are denied federal spousal benefits.
In a Washington Post op-ed this month, Mr. Clinton said he had “come to believe” that DOMA is “incompatible with our Constitution.” Mr. Bruni, however, did not get his apology. Instead, he got what for many sounded like tired Clintonesque parsing. Nothing stopped Mr. Clinton from taking a principled stand in 1996 but his own political calculation. He was up for re-election that fall and, at the time, a strong majority of Americans opposed gay marriage.
Last week, Hillary Clinton released a video in which she said she now supports same-sex marriage “personally and as a matter of policy and law.” That made her the last of the assumed contenders for the 2016 Democratic nomination to do so. It led the Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza to wonder whether the move would help her or merely reinforce the idea that she’s “a perennial late-arriver” on issues important to the party’s base. That proved fatal to her in 2008.
If gay marriage is as much as settled law in Democratic circles, Republicans are conflicted. Ohio Senator Rob Portman, whose son is gay, just dropped his opposition to gay marriage, and 100 prominent Republicans signed a brief urging the court to strike down California’s ban on same-sex marriage, the other case before the court. But the Republican base stands firmly behind the “traditional” definition of marriage.
One reason stems from the alarm in conservative circles about the decline of the two-parent heterosexual family, particularly in white America. In 1970, four-fifths of American children lived with two parents. Now it’s less than two-thirds. The legalization of gay marriage everywhere, conservatives argue, would make men even more irrelevant to child-rearing. “It would be very difficult for the law to send a message that fathers matter when it has redefined marriage to make fathers optional,” the Heritage Foundation’s Ryan Anderson wrote in a recent brief.
The American Society of Pediatrics has thrown its support behind gay marriage, saying a review of scientific literature showed that what matters to a child’s well-being is not the sexual orientation of his parents but whether he grows up with two of them. The society’s intervention, however, shocked many social scientists, who countered that there’s simply not enough long-term data on children raised by gay parents to make such a claim.
Regardless of the court’s decisions, gay marriage is unlikely to become the non-issue that it has in Canada. Americans do cling to their culture wars.