Maryland's present flirtation with gay marriage is only the latest chapter in a long-running culture war. In the "Free State's" case, it will ultimately come down to the people through a ballot initiative. A likely result: a coalition of Catholics, African-Americans, Hispanics and conservatives from both sides of the aisle send the measure to a decisive defeat. (Such a result would make Maryland the 32nd state to defeat a gay marriage referendum.) Opponents of all stripes will be tested in unique ways. First and foremost will be how to go about stating an opposing opinion without the usual "ism" and "phobic" charges from the secular left. It's not so easy — being on the cultural defensive never is.
Indeed, it is an unfortunate aspect of our country's marriage debate that one's record on gay issues gets deconstructed whenever opposing views are aired. Bulletin to those who engage in such tactics: Most who oppose gay marriage are neither homophobic nor religious zealots. (Some of us public-sector types were willing to endure harsh criticism from the right when appointing gay Marylanders to senior positions in government or creating medical and custodial accommodations for nontraditional relationships, so vitriol from the left is neither new nor intimidating.)
I have little patience with both extremes: those who refuse to recognize the existence of gay relationships in a free, pluralistic society and those (mostly secular culture warriors) who insist on an aggressive attack on anything and everyone supportive of traditional marriage. Neither position advances the intellectual argument.
Rather, I am intrigued by the civil rights component to the debate. And this is where proponents have found themselves on shaky ground. Advocates have attached themselves to the civil rights movement. "Marriage equality" is the new mantra. Here, the inability to marry a person of the same sex is analogized to a Jim Crow brand of discrimination. In the same way Rosa Parks was denied her civil right to sit wherever she wished on that city bus, proponents of gay marriage claim a similar right to marry a person of the same sex.
One major obstacle presents itself, however. Civil rights protections have traditionally attached themselves to groups possessing intrinsic characteristics: gender, ethnicity and race come to mind.
In the real world of human sexuality, however, it's far more complicated. Many argue that sexual orientation is intrinsic, but the inconvenient fact remains that some individuals change their sexual orientation. I, for one, do not opine on whether sexual orientation is gene driven or subject to environmental influences; that's a debate for theologians and scientists. I do, however, point out that such a fact presents a serious challenge to gay activists intent on advancing a civil rights agenda.
Today, many African-American preachers are taken aback by the criticism directed their way by some gay advocates. Many of these pastors are veterans of the civil rights movement; they are not acclimated to the negative epithets directed their way as a result of activism on behalf of traditional marriage. Theirs is a faith-based position identical to that of the majority of white religious leaders and many liberal politicians, including President Barack Obama. They do not deserve such invective.
The country has made progress in taking down blatant discrimination against gays. Hazing, bullying and violence has generated national attention and begun a national dialogue. (Indeed, with regard to crimes committed against gays, I signed a bill that added sexual orientation as a protected class under Maryland criminal law.) Further, most Americans see a limited role for government within the confines of one's bedroom. This newly energized libertarian spirit is especially alive and well in our younger generation.
Many of us draw the line at marriage, however. We ask the state to defend this fundamentally important (albeit flawed) institution — not redefine it down to fit the demand of an influential interest group. Indeed, one redefinition will most assuredly beget additional redefinitions: Why not a civil right to more than one spouse? Where does one draw the line once the traditional threshold is crossed?
Traditional marriage is integral to our Judeo-Christian heritage. It is the institution most adept at the business of raising children. For many opponents, it's not a civil rights issue. It's about a foundational institution that deserves this ultimate protection.
Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is email@example.com.