Yesterday, a two-member Elections Board (yes, two-member; sometimes you can’t make this stuff up) ruled that the citizens of the District of Columbia have no right to vote on whether or not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.
Whatever you think of the issue of gay marriage on the merits – and I am opposed – pursuing political objectives by circumventing democratic norms in favor of the courts is a recipe for further political polarization. Some people who might be disposed towards the issue on the merits are turned off when told that they shall have no say in the matter.
Worse, recourse to the courts and invoking abstract notions of rights guarantees that the debate play to the extremes. This happened after Roe and it is happening over gay marriage. Going through the cumbersome legislative process, where negotiations and deals and compromises are the order of the day, you end up with something that approximates the ambivalence many people feel on these issues. When you go through the courts, you get more of an all-or-nothing result.
There are differences between abortion and gay rights of course. Polling indicates that the most important thing to know about where a voter will come down on the issue of gay marriage is there age: Young people, even self-described conservatives, even self-described evangelicals, are much more likely to be supportive of same sex unions of some sort. No such corollary between age and abortion shows up in the polls. So, the gay marriage issue might "age out" with a bit of patience but, instead, activists are trying to force the issue through the courts in ways that unsettle our democratic norms. This is unfortunate. Gay people are also citizens and have an interest in a well functioning government.
On the merits, I have just never understood why a legal remedy cannot recognize the millennia-long institution of traditional marriage and also grant those rights which fair-minded people agree same-sex couples should have, such as the right to visit a loved-one in hospital or to transfer property and assets without penalty. I also do not understand how, in a city like DC where the AIDS rate is spiking among minority communities, especially the poor, gay marriage has become the most important issue.
In my book "Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats" I argued that words have meanings and that this word "marriage" has a meaning that has accrued to it over centuries. In his book "1984" George Orwell was at pains to show that one of the scariest things about Big Brother was they way the government changed the meaning of words. Opposing this novelty may involve homophobia for some but there are non-homophobic reasons to oppose it too.
So, this time the renewed fighting in the culture war comes from the Left. That does not make it any less regrettable.