Gay rights

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(Host) Commentator David Mosts reflects on love, marriage and culture wars.

(Moats) The issue of gay rights is reaching a critical point. For more than 30 years, one stream of America’s great civil rights struggle has involved gays and lesbians seeking rights and protections equal to those of everybody else. In the last 10 years this struggle has touched on fundamental questions of freedom, morality, and fairness. Now we’re at a turning point.

The U.S. Supreme Court issued a landmark decision last month in a Texas case, saying it was unconstitutional for states to criminalize private behavior between gays and lesbians. Now the Supreme Judicial Court in Massachusetts is expected to decide any day whether gays and lesbians should be allowed to marry.

With this as a backdrop, President Bush has entered the fray, saying he may support a constitutional amendment defining marriage as strictly heterosexual. You want a culture war? There it is, waiting to be declared.

A marriage amendment would have to go before Congress and the states, and it would plunge the nation into a struggle that would magnify by many times the bitterness of the struggle in Vermont over civil unions.

The Episcopal Church has plunged into a similar struggle. The church that split with Rome over the issue of divorce is now threatened with a schism over the elevation of a gay man to become bishop of New Hampshire.

We all know the traditional view of sex and society, and that is that sex should wait until marriage, and that is that.

It is hard in the public sphere to object to that view, to say that, actually, sex between single people is sometimes OK, that unmarried people can love each other in a profound way, that an infinitely varied range of experience between people is possible, including the full spectrum from selfless love to self-indulgence.

The morality of these experiences is complex. Most of us want to be good, loving people and to be loved in return. To counsel compassion and understanding in these matters is not to engage in soft -headed moral relativism.

It is to recognize that the struggles of the heart involve highly personal questions of morality and ethics for which our religions seek to provide moral guidance. Our laws and moral codes are meant to contain exploitive and abusive behavior, and certainly there is plenty of it to contain. But anyone who has looked into his or her own heart ought to understand the difficulty of passing judgment.

“The quality of mercy is not strained.
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”

Some of Shakespeare’s most beautiful lines talk about the quality of mercy. In a time when we are likely to be exposed to ever more strident and angry language about love, they are lines worth remembering.

This is David Moats from Middlebury.

David Moats in the editorial page editor for the Rutland Herald and winner of the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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