Shhh! I can’t talk now – I’m at the Clinton library. But here’s Tom Oliphant in the Boston Globe last week:

By Thomas Oliphant

Washington D.C. — The news media have grossly misreported the contents of state referendum questions targeting Americans who are apparently seen as more dangerous to national security than John Kerry — gay people.

Using unthinking shorthand that carries out the hidden agendas of the people who want gays banished to the fringes of society, the press has over and over again referred to these measures as banning gay marriage. In fact that is only accurate regarding three of the 11 initiatives passed last week.

In state after state — most prominently in Ohio (which Bush barely won) and in Michigan (which he nearly did) — these referendums went far beyond the question of who gets to be formally married. They also banned legal and other conventions incidental to marriage, which are central to the evolving institutions of civil unions and domestic partnerships.

For political reasons, it was central to the hidden agendas of the groups pushing these restrictions (the target is homosexuality, not relationships between homosexuals) that they not become the focus of the debate.

Therefore marriage was used as the cover for the far more consequential effort to strip contractual rights from gay couples who have formed hundreds of thousands of families in recent years across the United States.

That is why proponents described them repeatedly as efforts to ban gay or same-sex marriage, a formulation the press has mindlessly repeated. It reminds me of the success of groups who spent nearly a decade on behalf of banning a rare pregnancy procedure, the name for which was invented solely for political and shock-value purposes — partial-birth abortion. Again, the press’s lazy penchant for a catch phrase, unexamined for accuracy, led reporters and editors to mindlessly repeat the phrase.

The point about that phony campaign — already rejected once by federal judges of all stripes, including the Supreme Court, and back in the courts now — was to use the shock value of the procedure to create a ban written to cover all three trimesters of pregnancy without an exception to preserve a woman’s health, in other words to challenge Roe v. Wade and abortion rights themselves.

Just for the record, the three states whose initiatives last week refer only to the granting of marriage licenses are Montana, Oregon (the one place where the vote was very close), and Mississippi. The states that used marriage as a cover to mount an assault on contractual relationships of all kinds were Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, and Utah.

In pivotal Ohio, for example, the voters may not have realized it but they voted to strip people of the right to contractually arrange distribution of assets, child custody, pensions, and other employment benefits. They most definitely were not “protecting” marriage; they were attacking gay people. That is why the political and business establishment there, including Republicans, opposed the measure.

The evidence is that the voters who approved it also opposed its actual contents. In the official exit poll Tuesday night, 27 percent of the voters said they support full marriage rights, 35 percent supported civil unions, and only 27 percent oppose any legal rights for same-sex couples. In other words, to underline the importance of artifice and deception in our sound-bite culture, the voters approved a measure opposed substantively by 62 percent of the very same voters.

President Bush embodies this incoherence while he manipulates the sentiments cynically. Just before the election he tried to say he supports the rights of states to have civil unions, though he would have opposed them as governor of Texas. He also supports a federal constitutional amendment that would both limit “marriage” to man-woman couples and permit states to ban civil unions.

The incoherence was tactical. Bush knew fair-minded supporters of civil unions were going to vote for him (according to the exit polls, up to half did); but he also knew he needed to keep his base of bigots happy, too — hence his campaign’s alliance with them at the grass roots in places like Ohio.

The irony is that a federal amendment is probably necessary for the pro-discrimination forces to succeed.

Many states have laws to keep groups from putting two issues in the same referendum, in order to avoid exactly the kind of deception that has occurred. In fact, injunctive relief on that ground has already been granted in states that passed such initiatives earlier. In addition, they directly challenge both the contract and the equal protection clauses of the US Constitution.

The federal amendment does not have the votes, even in the new Congress, and my hunch is that Bush doesn’t have the stomach to truly fight for discrimination. He was, however, willing to benefit from the deception this year, and a lazy news media played right into the hands of those who would officially sanction discrimination.

Thomas Oliphant’s e-mail address is


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