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Mon, Oct. 21

Gay marriage ruling poses interstate puzzle

Gay rights advocates think it's a great thing that Massachusetts has legalized gay marriage. Traditionalists who reject the idea think judges in one state shouldn't be able to force their preferences on the nation. And never the twain shall meet. Right?

Wrong. In reality, they both have a valid point. Given the heated rhetoric this week, there may not be much interest in finding a compromise. But there's one available that would go far to satisfy the legitimate demands of each side.

The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts said Wednesday that under its state constitution, same-sex couples must be able to enter into marriage just like male-female couples. Normally, most of us care as much about Massachusetts marital law as we do about fare increases on the Boston subway. But opponents of gay marriage are scandalized at the idea that people who have been enjoying unconventional sex with no strings attached could find a way to lock themselves into long-term commitments.

This, they fear, would irreparably damage traditional marriage – a concern on the order of worrying that the Gay Games are going to destroy the Olympics. The Massachusetts decision, in their view, is a breach in the dike of tradition.

In one sense it is. But some traditions deserve to get poked full of holes. One is the treatment of homosexuals as criminals and second-class citizens. Last year's Supreme Court decision striking down sodomy laws was an overdue application of the principle that the state has no business supervising what consenting adults do between the sheets.

Legalizing permanent commitments between same-sex couples would recognize the reality that countless gay couples live together in long-term relationships, with some of them raising children together. Given that, it's pointlessly destructive to deny homosexuals the chance to bind themselves in the same way that heterosexual couples do.

If you don't like gay marriage, you definitely shouldn't enter into one. But gay marriages don't undermine heterosexual marriages any more than black churches undermine white ones.

If the court's decision stands – that is, if the Legislature doesn't overrule it by amending the state constitution – Massachusetts will carry out an experiment that could change minds in the rest of the country. The nice thing about living in a federal system is that states can adopt different approaches, and anyone who doesn't like her state's policy can go somewhere more congenial. With all the states that forbid gay marriage, it's healthy to have at least one that doesn't.

But the critics of the ruling have a justifiable concern. They warn that if one state allows gay marriage, the other 49 will be powerless to enforce a contrary preference. The U.S. Constitution says that "full faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records and judicial proceedings of every other state." The implication is that if two gays get married in the Bay State, they can migrate anywhere from Alaska to Alabama and demand legal respect for the union.

Gay marriage is a good thing. But for one state supreme court to override the choices of every other state is not. We can have one without the other, and we should.

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