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Press Herald does an amazing public service

I write today to commend the Portland Press Herald, for having the courage to deeply explore objections to same-sex marriage, and to report, even in an opinion piece, pitfalls that have come out of the national drive toward legalizing same-sex marriage.

MD Harmon's opinion piece today is masterful, commanding, and is a must-read piece of writing. I say this not to endorse its position, nor to agree with much, if anything, of what Harmon says.

I say this because while Harmon's ultra-conservative screeds are pretty much par for the course, he is actually pretty good at trotting out obscure arguments that sometimes cause problems in public-policy debates. And he has done so again today, which is a great service.

He has demonstrated that the strongest objections to same-sex marriage are thin, weak, and, where related to flaws in legislation, already fixed in the bill Maine lawmakers have before them.

If Harmon can come up with nothing better than the bizarre collection of examples of not-really-all-that-slippery slopes, then he has made a stronger argument for gay marriage than any proponent ever could.

Let's deconstruct. First, he claims that marriage is about sex (or, if not about sex, then about child-bearing). Which it isn't - most couples report having sex less often after being married than they did when they were single or dating. And plenty of couples don't want children, but still get married.

Marriage is about mutual obligations between consenting adults. Sometimes those consenting adults add to their mutual obligations an agreement to help support a third party (a child, or an elderly parent, or a neighbor in need). When they do so, they absolutely take on obligations to that third party.

The interest of the state in marriage is not to foster population increase. The interest of the state in marriage is the well-being of individuals. We are social beings, and we choose partners (not "mates" - that's about sex and children), and we want to have an institution that offers legal recognition of our choices.

The interest of religions in marriage may be about increasing the number of followers of that faith (though some faiths - most notably in this country, the Shakers - specifically bar sex and discourage marriage). Religions may have many reasons for supporting marriage - some even supported polygamy. We're not interested in that - it's the civil, legal, governmental interest in marriage we're discussing here. Which, again, is not about sex or children but about supporting choices consenting adults make on their own.

Next, Harmon suggests that children are somehow harmed by being raised in same-sex families because, he writes, "Children raised without either a father or a mother (most often a father, in our divorce-prone culture) fare far more badly than those raised in families with a mother and a father."

So by giving a child two mommies or two daddies, we have, in Harmon's logic, deprived them of one or the other - which becomes, for him, "harm."

But he can't possibly be arguing that the harm of having two parents of the same gender is greater than the harm of having one parent (of either gender). That makes no sense - two loving adults earning money, caring for the child, supplying food, giving attention are better than one.

He also can't possibly be arguing that we should somehow societally or governmentally require every single bio-parent to be deeply involved in the raising of their offspring - that would not only violate his ultra-conservative logic, but also would make no sense. Some people are not cut out to be parents; some children may be better off under the care of others than their parents.

So what is he arguing? It's unclear. He is silent on any details, preferring to let stand unsupported his declaration that because an arrangement does not match his model, it's universally bad. If we accept that as the case, then we have to suggest Harmon's energy is misplaced, and rather should be spent railing against child neglect and abuse, as well as supporting economic and educational reforms that could help poor and disadvantage families avoid the strife that can lead to divorce.

Next, Harmon suggests that if we legalize same-sex marriage, all sorts of litigation will follow, with anyone who opposes same-sex marriage being sued to within an inch of their financial lives. He does throw a small bone in, noting that the report he cites extensively has a recommendation that applies: "The report says lawmakers should amend state statutes to provide 'robust exemptions for those with religious or other conscientious objections to same-sex marriage.'"

And Harmon is absolutely right that freedom of religious belief and practice should be robustly protected from governmental interference. But he doesn't note that Maine's same-sex marriage bill does just that. It specifically says that it does not authorize "any court or other state or local governmental body, entity, agency or commission to compel, prevent or interfere in any way with any religious institution's religious doctrine, policy, teaching or solemnization of marriage within that particular religious faith's tradition."

Next, he throws in an interesting phrase - "protect marriage" - which is often bandied about by conservatives who seek to insulate themselves and their worldviews from the intrusion of reality and human rights. It's unclear to me why marriage - as an institution - needs protection at all. It's freely entered into (at least in our culture) and can be dissolved as freely. If marriage is so precious, we should outlaw divorce. That would be the way to "protect marriage," if in fact it needed any protection at all.

He cites a few examples of bad laws having bad effects, such as an encroachment on a New Jersey Methodist group's religious freedom. Maine's law avoids that, so his criticism - while perhaps well-made about New Jersey's situation - misses the mark here.

His second-to-last point brings up another bizarre conservative concept - that "this movement wants to start its indoctrination of our kids" at early ages. I'm not sure that teachers or parents want schools teaching same-sex any more than they apparently want anyone teaching hetero-sex. The conservatives have subverted public-health initiatives by claiming religious freedom, and demanding that public schools not teach children about sex - barring even information that could save those children's lives, on the basis that parents should be the sole source of information about sex for their kids.

This is a fine argument, except for two problems: 1) parents don't want to - and don't - talk about sex with their kids; 2) the public health is endangered if large portions of the population do not know how to prevent the spread of disease and infection.

What they are teaching in schools is mutual tolerance and understanding, which we do want taught everywhere we can manage to get someone to teach it.

And Harmon ends with poll statistics suggesting that 60 percent of Americans oppose same-sex marriage. But again, even at the very end, at what he must have thought was a crushing final blow, he misses the point: When has a national poll ever told anyone what Mainers think?

But again, I want to thank Harmon and the Press Herald for publishing this. If Harmon has written it and the Press Herald has published it, it's strong, well-researched, backed up by logic, and reasonable. That's obvious.

What the publication of this piece has made obvious, then, is that this is as strong, well-researched, backed up by logic, and reasonable as opponents to same-sex marriage can get. Now we can get the strength, research, logic, and reason of the proponents at the table. I look forward to that "debate."

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