The right to be let be

April 23, 2003

GAY RIGHTS advocates want the Senate Republican leadership to punish Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania for expressing views they say are insensitive to homosexuals. But Senator Santorum actually offered a good argument for why the Supreme Court should rule in their favor in a case testing the constitutionality of state prohibitions on sodomy.

The alarm bells went off when Mr. Santorum said in an interview that he feared a court ruling upholding the right of consenting adults to engage in private homosexual activity would lead down a perilous trail to additional expanded liberties. Under such a privacy protection, he warned, "you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything."

His legal logic is hard to follow since the other activities involve marriage contracts and public health concerns. But his effort to try to hold back the tide washing over his idealized vision of the world demonstrates what gay and lesbian partners face in their quest to simply live their lives - and why they need the court's protection.

Consensual gay sex, along with bigamy, incest, adultery, etc., is "antithetical to a healthy, stable, traditional family," the senator argued. "Traditional" is the key word here. The Ozzie and Harriet world he yearns for doesn't exist anymore, if it ever did. Repeated divorce and remarriage, along with the public acknowledgement of gay relationships once kept in the shadows, have radically changed the composition of many families. They have single parents, two parents of the same gender, children of different parents, ex-spouses and long-time companions. All these groupings can be healthy and stable if those involved are committed to them.

The threshold question before the Supreme Court is much easier to decide than the shape of the American family. The case was sparked by police looking for a crazed gunman. They entered the apartment of a Houston man, found him having sex with another man, and charged them both with sodomy under a Texas law that doesn't apply to heterosexual partners.

A majority of the court seemed inclined during last month's hearing to agree the Texas law violated constitutional guarantees to equal treatment. It's one of the last of its kind in the nation.

But there is a broader issue the court should also tackle. It should define some zone of private intimate behavior where moralizing politicians with no higher purpose than imposing their own beliefs on the choices of others can no longer tread.

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