DESECRATION? DEDICATION!

And now for a short quiz:
How many amendments are there in the Constitution? How many times may a senator be re-elected? Which president was the first commander in chief of the U.S. military? What do the stripes on the flag stand for?

You got the flag one, didn't you? But what about the other three? These are just a few of the questions people may be asked to answer if they are taking the test to become citizens of the United States. That's a good thing. A working knowledge of the governing processes and the history of our country can be reasonably expected of those who want to share in the benefits and responsibilities of being American.

The problem is that most native-born citizens probably can't pass the test. Americans are remarkably casual about their citizenship, not voting in sufficient numbers, not following the critical political issues. Those of us to the Star-Spangled Banner born aren't tested in the same way converts are. In fact, the United States seems to have a bad case of what you might call natalism, privilege conferred by accident of birth, high or low. (Although there is still no privilege like the privilege of wealth. Who knew that National Guard service was so flexible that you could duck out nearly a year early because, as President Bush said in his ill-advised interview with Tim Russert, "I was going to Harvard Business School and worked it out with the military.")

The latest citizens to be required to perform, as gadfly feminist politico Charlotte Whitton once said of women, twice as well to be thought half as good are gay men and lesbians. All these people want is what we hetero types take for granted: the opportunity to drop to one knee in a white-tablecloth restaurant and pledge eternal fealty in the eyes of the waiters and the world. But if gay people persist in this wild-eyed determination to marry, it's clear they will be held to that higher standard that outsiders have learned to expect.

In a recent sermon, Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, who somehow managed for a long time to contain his public outrage at pedophiles in the priestly ranks, decried the notion of same-sex marriage and referred to "the desecration of something sacred." The marriages we're talking about are civil marriages, which are so short of being sanctified in the eyes of the church that it will scarcely recognize their existence if you are Roman Catholic. And in a secular nation, why should church leaders be required to acknowledge civil marriage--or, for that matter, be attended to when they pass judgment on what they will not acknowledge? Let them police the rites they have the right to regulate.

One of the chief arguments opponents have against same-sex marriage is that marriage is designed first and foremost to produce and shelter children. Naturally, we straight people don't have to conform to that standard. Infertile people, people who don't want to have kids, women who are past childbearing age: all of us get married as a matter of course, no questions asked. Unfortunately for those who rely on that argument, the barrenness of gay unions isn't accurate. In a soon-to-be-published book, "Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America," Jonathan Rauch reports that the most recent Census found 28 percent of gay couples had kids. And that's probably an undercount. Opponents might also argue that the children of gay couples are not the sort of biological fruit of marriage to which we are accustomed. They might try telling that to straight people who have used IVF or a sperm bank, who are stepparents or adoptive parents.

Comedians have made jokes about the gay-marriage controversy along predictable lines: why shouldn't they have the same right to be miserable that the rest of us have? Rauch's book turns that offhanded ridicule of the institution on its head. In few books about matrimony will you read descriptions that so powerfully evoke the married state as a blessing for human beings. It is the yearning of the exile, the hunger of the disenfranchised. Even the dedication packs a wallop: "For Michael. Marry me, when we can." To characterize this sort of devotion as desecration is reprehensible. Anyone who defines marriage largely in terms of what happens in bed has never been married. Which may explain the Catholic Church's official reaction.

Like the naturalized citizens who are expected to know more about America than those of us born here, gay couples are being held to a standard the denizens of Vegas chapels and divorce courts have never had to meet: to justify the simple human urge, so taken for granted by the rest of us, to fully and legally come together. Just as it's common to see an immigrant take the oath and then kiss the ground, the result of all this enforced soul-searching may well be a fervor that will honor an embattled institution. Gay people are being asked to form a more perfect union. In the process, perhaps they can teach us something that we casual citizens and spouses badly need to learn.