Gay Marriage As an Election Issue

Will last week's New Jersey Supreme Court decision on gay marriage have an impact on next week's election? The ruling opened the door to make the state the second in the nation—after Massachusetts—to allow gay marriage by finding that the legislature must offer same-sex couples some form of marriage or civil union.

Gay marriage was one of the hot-button issues in 2004, but Evan Wolfson, executive director of the gay-rights group Freedom to Marry and author of "Why Marriage Matters" (Simon & Schuster, 2004) doesn't believe it's likely to resonate at the polls on Nov. 7. He spoke with NEWSWEEK's Debra Rosenberg about the court decision, the upcoming vote and the struggle over gay marriage. Excerpts:

What do you make of the New Jersey decision?

I think it's a very powerful decision that illustrates the difference between happy and satisfied. I'm happy to see a unanimous high court ruling that gay couples must be treated fairly. But I'm not satisfied because the high court opened the door to equality but didn't finish the job [because it referred the decision to the legislature]. There's only one way to provide equality and that is by equal treatment.

So not calling it marriage makes a big difference?

One of the main protections that comes with marriage is the word "marriage" and the security and certainty that come with that. There's not a married couple in the country that would trade in their marriage for a civil union or something else. Marriage is more than just the legal protections and responsibilities. It's a statement, a commitment that everyone recognizes. The best way to think about it is ask yourself this question. Either marriage and civil unions are the same—in which case why do we need two lines at the government clerk's office—or they're not the same, in which case why is the government withholding from these families and what reason does it have for doing that. It's funny because when we're discussing this question on the one hand, pretty much everyone agrees that marriage matters. And people have emotions and a rich set of feelings about marriage. But when the question is can gay people be denied marriage, people say it doesn't matter at all. How can it matter and not matter?

The New Jersey decision came out two weeks before the election. Will it have an effect on the outcome?

It [will have] virtually no effect on the election despite the hyperventilating of the anti-gay marriage industry and political statements from the president, who would like to shift the country's attention from Iraq and economic insecurity and political scandal. They've gone to this well too many times. People are not going to be fooled this time around. In 2004, we know despite the mythologizing, it didn't have an effect in those states where it was on the ballot. In terms of actually driving turnout or shifting votes, that was all right-wing spin. Even the president's pollster Matt Dowd says this. The election of 2004 turned on questions of national security, not on the trumped-up threat allegedly posed by gay couples seeking to settle down. We're going to see a wave of anti-gay attacks in the states with these ballot measures, which are aimed at not only denying marriage but denying gays any protection large or small. But I don't see them having an effect [on the election]. Nor will they stop this effort to reach marital equality.

One of the things that didn't get reported by anybody last week is that the New Jersey Supreme Court 10 years ago ruled against a [sexual-orientation] discrimination case by Rutgers University professors. The court refused their plea. In less than 10 years you now have a unanimous court saying gay couples must be treated equally. That just shows the tremendous progress that's being made in this country as people are thinking it through and looking at the lived experiences in places like Canada and Massachusetts, where families are helped and no one is hurt. Are we going to win every battle every minute? It is going to happen overnight? Of course not.

Gay Marriage As an Election Issue | News