The thinking of the plains is an outline for Maine lawmakers to follow.

In a recent unanimous decision, Iowa’s Supreme Court nullified that state’s ban on same-sex marriage, ruling “the exclusion of gay and lesbian people from the institution of civil marriage does not substantially further any important governmental objective.”

As Maine’s legislators consider a bill to legalize same-sex marriage (LD 1020), one can imagine each of them applying the same test Iowa’s court applied, asking whether an important governmental purpose is served by denying same-sex couples the right to marry.

If no purpose can be identified, legislators should support LD 1020. Treating same-sex and opposite-sex couples differently without good reason makes no sense. It is tantamount to telling gays and lesbians they are second-class citizens.

If voters or legislators think an important governmental purpose is served by excluding same-sex couples from marriage, they should read the Iowa decision. The court showed such arguments to be flawed.

For example, the argument a state has an interest in preserving the traditional conception of marriage is shown to be circular. Because “traditional conception of marriage” simply means “opposite-sex marriage,” the argument amounts to a claim it’s necessary to restrict marriage to opposite-sex couples in order to maintain opposite-sex marriage.

That’s like saying “we must not let them do it … so they won’t be able to do it.” As the court said, that kind of pseudo-justification is “empty.” (Of course, many people justify traditional conceptions of marriage on religious grounds, but ours is a secular democracy, so one hopes legislators would set such considerations aside.)

It’s also been argued that states must limit marriage to opposite-sex couples to promote optimal child-rearing environments. But as the Iowa court notes, the American Psychological Association holds that “[l]esbian and gay parents are as likely as heterosexual parents to provide supportive and healthy environments for children.”

Secondly, while the marriage ban was in place, Iowa law still permitted child abusers and violent felons to marry even though they are “undeniably less than optimal parents.” (The same is true of Maine’s laws.) To defend laws that ban same-sex marriage on concerns about child welfare, when the law also allows child abusers and felons to marry, seems less than sincere.

More candid are those who reject same-sex marriage on grounds it is “unnatural” or, as was said in a comment on this newspaper’s Web site on April 4, “Disgusting!” Research in psychology demonstrates the experience of disgust can intensify negative moral judgments.

Indeed, a recent study by psychologists Yoel Inbar, David Pizarro, and Paul Bloom showed that opponents of gay marriage exhibited greater sensitivity to disgust than did proponents. Respondents who described themselves as most prone to disgust – even when merely imagining non-social stimuli like cockroaches or urine – were most opposed to gay marriage.

In short, one thing that may be contributing to opposition to LD 1020 is a simple “yuck” reaction. This possibility should give lawmakers pause. As Bloom argues, “revulsion is not always the expression of deep wisdom … It can be a cruel and stupid emotion.”

As Bloom notes – and a similar point was made at Wednesday’s hearing on LD 1020 at the Augusta Civic Center -many Americans once found interracial sex to be disgusting, with anti-miscegenation laws reflecting that disgust. One hopes our legislators follow a different path in revisiting our marriage laws.

Of course, legislators may worry about losing their next election if they support LD 1020. If so, I urge them to not only feel accountable to their current constituents, but also to their own children and grandchildren. As conservative columnist George F. Will has said, “For the rising generation of Americans, being gay is like being left-handed: It’s boring and uninteresting.”

If Will is right, the moral question legislators will ultimately face from their children and grandchildren is how they responded to appeals of men and women who wanted to support each other, and in some cases raise children together, but who happened to be gay.

Is reelection worth having to explain to one’s children and grandchildren why one chose to treat such men and women as second-class citizens?

Michael Sargent is an experimental social psychologist and an associate professor of pyschology at Bates College. E-mail [email protected]


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