Times Analyst Makes Good Case About Gay Marriage In Dollars—But Lacks Some Sense

We’ve been fighting the forces of evil so long we sometimes forget that most Americans don’t really have a strong opinion about marriage equality—or really understand its significance.

In Saturday’s New York Times Richard H. Thaler, professor of economics and behavioral science at the University of Chicago lays down a fiscal argument in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage that’s almost perfect for emailing to that friend or relative who may not be blinded by bigotry but just doesn’t get “what the big deal is.”

• If Pat and Chris want to form a business partnership in your home state, should their sexes play any role in determining whether that partnership is legal?

• Should the government play any role in deciding the rules regarding religious ceremonies like christenings and bar mitzvahs?

If you answered “no” to both questions, you are on your way to solving the same-sex marriage debate in the United States.

He goes on to explain discuss the rights—”more than 1,000,” he reminds readers—that legally wed couples enjoy:

Spouses may give each other unlimited bequests tax free, and they are permitted to file joint tax returns. If one spouse is a citizen, the other can become a citizen, too, and spouses get special treatment from Social Security.

For some couples, a lot of money is on the line. That’s why you are reading this column in the business section.

The mistake Thaler makes, and it’s one many well-intentioned heteros make, is he thinks those on the other side of the argument are just hung up on semantics. That if we called marriages “domestic partnerships” and let everyone have all the same federal rights, the problem would solve itself.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution to this problem, one that, based on their stated views, both Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney might support, along with anyone else who answered “no” to my two opening questions.

Congress should amend the Defense of Marriage Act to [state] the following: “Wherever the word ‘marriage’ appears in any federal statute, replace that word with the phrase ‘domestic partnership between two people valid under the laws of the state where it was obtained.’ ”

I am not a lawyer, so I will not try to spell out all the details of how this would work. But here is a rough outline of a plan: In my ideal world, all states would follow the federal lead. The legal unions that are now called marriages would be called domestic partnerships, which would be offered to same-sex as well as heterosexual couples. But if some states are unwilling to enact such statutes, same-sex couples who live in those states could simply go to a state that does offer same-sex domestic partnerships, and would then be treated as such by the federal government, with all the attendant financial benefits and responsibilities. Companies can choose the state in which they incorporate, so couples should have that privilege, too.

Marriage, of course, would continue, but would no longer be regulated by the government. Instead, weddings would become like many other important ceremonies from graduations to funerals: private matters. (Conservatives may applaud now.)

And anyone who believes in freedom of religion should support this proposal, because religions would have complete freedom to decide their criteria for marriages. One church could decide to marry only heterosexual members, while another might choose to marry only same-sex couples who are Cubs fans. Our founding fathers would be proud.

It’s sweet Thaler thinks it’d be that easy but as we’ve seen in Arizona, New Hampshire and elsewhere, our enemies don’t want to just stop us from getting married. They want to ban or repeal civil unions, benefits for domestic partners, anti-discrimination ordinances, anti-bulling programs—basically anything that grants LGBT people any measure of equality and protection. (It’s also a little galling that Thaler would allow states to deprive gays of their rights by saying, essentially, “well just don’t live there.”)

Thaler admits he doesn’t “expect the current Congress to pass [his proposed bill] anytime soon, and we don’t want to sound like we don’t appreciate someone trying to defend marriage equality from a business standpoint. But maybe this is a sign we need to remind those people not really invested in the issue one way or another how dangerous our enemies are.

Actually, looking at what’s going on in Congress right now, what would really stir our hetero allies to action is getting them to realize that it might be our rights on the line, but they’re next.