Homosexual marriage is not a civil rights issue. But that hasn't stopped the advocates of same-sex marriage from draping themselves in the glory of the civil rights movement -- and smearing the defenders of traditional marriage as the moral equal of segregationists.
In The New York Times last Sunday, cultural critic Frank Rich, quoting a "civil rights lawyer," beatified the gay and lesbian couples lining up to receive illegal marriage licenses from San Francisco's new mayor, Gavin Newsom.
"An act as unremarkable as getting a wedding license has been transformed by the people embracing it," Rich wrote, "much as the unremarkable act of sitting at a Formica lunch counter was transformed by an act of civil disobedience at a Woolworth's in North Carolina 44 years ago this month." Nearby, the Times ran a photograph of a smiling lesbian couple in matching wedding veils -- and an even larger photograph of a 1960 lunch counter sit-in.
Rich's essay -- "The Joy of Gay Marriage" -- went on to cast the supporters of traditional marriage as hateful zealots. They are "eager to foment the bloodiest culture war possible," he charged. "They are gladly donning the roles played by Lester Maddox and George Wallace in the civil rights era."
But it is the marriage radicals like Rich and Newsom who are doing their best to inflame a culture war. And as is so often the case in wartime, truth -- in this case, historical truth -- has been an early casualty.
For contrary to what Rich seems to believe, when Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Joseph McNeil, and Franklin McCain approached the lunch counter of the Elm Street Woolworth's in Greensboro, N.C. on Feb. 1, 1960, all they were looking for was something to eat. The four North Carolina Agricultural & Technical College students only wanted what any white customer might want, and on precisely the same terms -- the same food at the same counter at the same price.
Those first four sit-in strikers, like the thousands of others who would emulate them at lunch counters across the South, weren't demanding that Woolworth's prepare or serve their food in ways it had never been prepared or served before. They weren't trying to do something that had never been lawful in any state of the union. They weren't bent on forcing a revolutionary change upon a timeless social institution.
All they were seeking was what should already have been theirs under the law of the land. The 14th Amendment -- approved by Congress and ratified by three-fourths of the states in 1868 -- had declared that blacks no less than whites were entitled to equal protection of the law. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 -- passed by a Democratic House and a Republican Senate and signed into law by President Grant -- had barred discrimination in public accommodations.
But the Supreme Court had gutted those protections with shameful decisions in 1883 and 1896. The court's betrayal of black Americans was the reason why, more than six decades later, segregation still polluted so much of the nation. To restore the 14th Amendment to its original purpose, to re-create the Civil Rights Act, to return to black citizens the equality that had been stolen from them -- that was the great cause of civil rights.
The marriage radicals, on the other hand, seek to restore nothing. They have not been deprived of the law's equal protection, nor of the right to marry -- only of the right to insist that a single-sex union is a "marriage." They cloak their demands in the language of civil rights because it sounds so much better than the truth: They don't want to accept or reject marriage on the same terms that it is available to everyone else. They want it on entirely new terms. They want it to be given a meaning it has never before had, and they prefer that it be done undemocratically -- by judicial fiat, for example, or by mayors flouting the law. Whatever else that may be, it isn't civil rights.
But dare to speak against it, and you are no better than Bull Connor.
Last month, as Massachusetts lawmakers prepared to debate a constitutional amendment on the meaning of marriage, the state's leading black clergy came out strongly in support of the age-old definition: the union of a man and a woman. They were promptly tarred as enemies of civil rights. "Martin Luther King," one left-wing legislator barked, "is rolling over in his grave at a statement like this."
But if anything has King spinning in his grave, it is the indecency of exploiting his name for a cause he never supported. The civil rights movement for which he lived and died was grounded in a fundamental truth: All of us are created equal. The same-sex marriage movement, by contrast, is grounded in the denial of a fundamental truth: The Creator who made us equal made us male and female. That duality has always and everywhere been the starting point for marriage. The newly fashionable claim that marriage can ignore that duality is akin to the claim, back when lunch counters were segregated, that America was a land of liberty and justice for all.