Commentary: You can't legislate acceptance

Glenn Garvin of The Miami Herald (C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald/MCT)
Glenn Garvin of The Miami Herald (C.W. Griffin/Miami Herald/MCT) MCT

After nearly 50 years of civil-rights legislation, where do we stand? Ask my friend Eric Deggans, the television critic at the St. Petersburg Times. When Eric, who is black, returned home from a trip last week, he found a message on his phone from an irate reader suggesting he get a TV show titled A Coon With A View. "Post-racial America my foot," Eric wearily noted on his Facebook page.

I have a feeling that the two couples whose lawsuit resulted in a ruling last weekend striking down California's ban on gay marriages will soon know exactly how Eric feels.

For that matter, so will federal Judge Vaughn Walker, who issued the ruling.

Despite all the rhetoric to the contrary, this case had little to do with governmental discrimination against gays. The ban on gay marriage approved by California voters in 2008 had no effect on the state's domestic-partners law -- and Walker's own decision acknowledged that "domestic partnerships offer same-sex couples almost all of the rights and responsibilities associated with marriage."

What the lawsuit was really about, as the couples testified over and over during the trial, was social acceptance and emotional affirmation -- matters beyond the scope of any judicial ruling, no matter how legally sweeping and humanitarianly intended.

Sandy Stier, who runs a child-welfare agency, and Kristin Perry, a county health-services worker, already have a domestic partnership, not to mention four children. But Stier believes that marriage would not only include them "in the social fabric" but also be a way to tell "our friends, our family, our society, our community, our parents . . . and each other, that this is a lifetime commitment."

I'm fine with Stier and Perry having a wedding. I don't see how it undermines the institution of marriage or adversely affects the rest of us in any way. But if having four kids didn't convince their friends and family that they're serious about one another, I can't imagine that a fill-in-the-blanks form from the state of California is going to do it, either. Nor will it guarantee a lifetime commitment, as heterosexual marriages -- currently failing at rate of something over 40 percent -- certainly attest.

Even more unlikely are the hopes of Paul Katami, a fitness expert who wants to wed business owner Jeff Zarrillo. Katami told the court that a marriage license would change the way the rest of the world looks at them. "I can safely say that if I were married to Jeff," he testified, "I know that the struggle that we have validating ourselves to other people would be diminished and potentially eradicated."

But if irrational prejudice could be abolished by government decree, my friend Eric wouldn't have gotten that ugly phone call last week. The 60 percent or so of Americans who, according to polls, oppose gay marriage are not suddenly going to change their minds because a judge in San Francisco tells them to.

If anything, it will be quite the reverse: a public backlash against Judge Walker's ruling that will stiffen if he's upheld by the Supreme Court. People don't like being told what to believe, and they like it even less coming from an unelected official. The result will likely be years of culture wars that will make the national "conversation" on abortion look polite and understated.

This all could easily have been avoided. Public acceptance of homosexuality has increased at an astonishing rate since what we used to call the gay liberation movement was born after a police raid on a gay bar in Greenwich Village in 1969.

The California ballot initiative that Judge Walker overturned last week barely passed with 52 percent of the vote; with just slightly better organization, gay marriage supporters could have reversed it at the ballot box this fall.

Gays, understandably, think it's outrageous that they have to fight for acceptance at all. But that thousands of years of opposition to homosexuality could be overcome in just four decades is an amazing testament to the power of moral suasion.

To turn away from persuasion to the blunt force of government edicts was a tactical mistake and a misunderstanding of human nature. When Congress set its sights on eradicating racial prejudice with the 1964 civil rights act, Barry Goldwater warned that it was overreaching. "You cannot pass a law that will make me like you -- or you like me," he said. "That is something that can only happen in our hearts." If only our heads could get the message.