The Supreme Court ruling striking down same-sex marriage bans nationwide is a decisive victory for the marriage equality movement -- a victory that seemed unthinkable 12 years ago, when a similar ruling by the Massachusetts State Supreme Court shocked the country. But now that gay marriage is the law of the land, is there a way to de-escalate the culture wars over the issue?
Many conservatives are seething over the fact that five unelected justices have enshrined in law a major change to the institution of marriage. Yet claims of judicial tyranny ring somewhat hollow when polls show that a majority of Americans now backs same-sex marriage. It is very likely that same-sex marriage advocates prevailed in the Supreme Court because they had won in the court of public opinion first.
The shift in attitudes, which has been happening all over the Western world, has to do with many factors including sexual and personal liberation. Romantic love has come to be seen as the central element of marriage, once primarily an arrangement between families. The link between marriage and child-rearing has been weakened by the growing acceptance of divorce, single parenthood, and marriages that are childless by choice; conversely, it has become increasingly common for gay couples to raise children. The rise of egalitarian marriage has blurred the lines between the once-distinct family roles of husbands and wives.
With all these changes, arguments against equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians seemed increasingly unpersuasive. The losing side in the Supreme Court case argued that the state has an interest in ensuring that children are raised by both biological parents. But when children of divorced or never-married heterosexual parents vastly outnumber children raised by same-sex couples, such a plea is doomed to fail.
Some have predicted that the high court's ruling on same-sex marriage will make this issue a battleground as contentious as abortion after Roe v. Wade. This is far from inevitable. The passions on abortion stem largely from the fact that many people -- not all of them religious -- sincerely regard it as the killing of children. Opponents of same-sex marriage can make no claim of clear and extreme harm to innocent victims.
But the victorious side in this culture war may yet create victims, and make reconciliation impossible, if it refuses to show tolerance toward the losers. Battles are looming over Christian florists and bakers who claim that making floral arrangements and cakes for gay weddings violates their religious freedom. Some have suggested a compromise that would allow such business owners to refuse services based not on the clients' sexual orientation but on the message these services would endorse -- that is, the affirmation of a same-sex marriage. To many civil rights activists, this will undoubtedly seem like a distinction without a difference.
And this is only the beginning. Will churches, synagogues and mosques that define marriage as a male-female union be treated as equivalent to sects that ban interracial marriage? Will conservative religious colleges lose government financial aid? Will mainstream media refuse to publish op-eds or letters arguing against same-sex marriage, as The Patriot-News and its website, PennLive, in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said they would last week?
Such blanket demonization of the traditional view of marriage would be not only illiberal but counterproductive. Despite a societal commitment to gender equality, we find room in our public discourse for organizations and individuals who embrace a traditional vision of gender roles. We can protect gay equality while protecting freedom of conscience and expression for those embrace traditional marriage.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.