The Right Coast

May 11, 2004
Charles Murray on Civil Unions
By Mike Rappaport

Recently, I saw a presentation on C Span by Jonathan Rauch on his new book advocating same-sex marriage, with commentary by Charles Murray and Michael Novak. Charles Murray stated that he used to strongly advocate civil unions, but now strongly opposes such unions, because he believes they undermine heterosexual marriage. Here is an excerpt:
    The other pressure point goes to the question of marriage versus civil unions or "marriage lite," as Jonathan calls them in a wonderful phrase. Here's another point at which Jonathan absolutely persuaded me. Jonathan says that "marriage lite" is going to be seriously damaging to heterosexual marriage because, if civil unions are even easier to get out of than marriage is now, that [will] enable [people] to get the economic and statutory goodies of marriage without taking on the full symbolic and legal obligations of marriage, they will remove the last vestige of stigma about cohabitation as a framework for having children.

    So, if you have civil unions become the way that gays deal with the problem, believe me, there will be a whole lot of heterosexuals which will be very happy to join in with that movement, and you will have, I think, a major increase in alternatives to marriage and the results will be just as bad as Jonathan says they are. Jonathan's Rule No. 1, that to get the benefits of marriage you have to get married is powerfully argued from a variety of directions that are wholly convincing. I just went from being mildly positive about civil union as a solution to the gay marriage issue to being adamantly opposed.
I was greatly distressed to hear Murray make this argument, since I agree with him on most matters and basically adopt his former position of favoring same-sex civil unions of some kind.

While Murray’s argument is a strong one – civil unions might undermine heterosexual marriage – it is based on a mistaken premise – that civil unions need to be provided to heterosexuals as well as homosexuals. This premise is simply not true. I would argue that civil unions should be limited to same-sex couples because such unions are a substitute for marriage and because civil unions for heterosexual couples would endanger traditional marriage.

If civil unions were restricted to gay couples, then the problems Murray identifies would be greatly reduced if not eliminated. One could then embrace civil unions as a half-way house, allowing the nation to see how gays (and the rest of society) would respond to a type of same-sex legal unions before the political system has to make a final decision on same-sex marriages.

I was also distressed to hear Murray take this position, because this is the second time that a commentator I respect has made this mistake. Some months ago, David Frum made the same point in a Wall Street Journal editorial, which I criticized.

As Jonathan Rauch has written, same-sex marriage would be a radical change in our institutions. Even if one believes it would be a beneficial change, it should not be adopted without having some experience with how it would operate. Civil unions are the most obvious way to gain such experience. And, thankfully, civil unions need not be offered to heterosexuals.