Sen. Rand Paul had an interview on Sunday where he was asked again to walk people through his position on government recognition of same-sex marriage. This time Dana Bash of CNN challenged him over whether his catering to religious opposition to expanding the definition of marriage contradicts with his libertarian "government should leave people alone" leanings. Watch the clip below:
To summarize, he wants religion to have control over the use of the word "marriage" (somehow—no idea how that actually works) but allow for gay couples to enter into civil contracts that will allow everybody to be treated the same by the government:
I see no reason why, if the marriage contract conveys certain things, that if you want to marry another woman, that you can do that and have a contract. But the thing is, is the religious connotation of marriage that has been going on for thousands of years, I still want to preserve that.
"You probably could have both. You could have both traditional marriage, which I believe in, and then you could also have the neutrality of the law that allows people to have contracts with another."
This quote seems to have caused the Atlanta Journal Constitution to think that Rand Paul is "taking a step toward gay marriage," which isn't really true. As Jacob Sullum noted, he made very similar comments recently on Fox (and even further in the past). What was new, and confusing, was when he told evangelicals in a meeting recently that the rise of gay marriage was part of a "moral crisis" that "allows people to think there would be some sort of other marriage." Wouldn't that be the other form of marriage Paul himself is promoting here?
Looking at the issue from a completely different side, Paul's attempt to thread the needle is being presented by Matt Wilstein at Mediaite (and others) as being connected to the bad old days of racial segregation and the "separate but equal" doctrine. It's an emotional but fundamentally illogical argument. One of the many, many issues with segregation was that the whole "equal" part was a great big lie. If all unions were treated the same under the law, it wouldn't matter if they were called something separate. That's just a semantic game. There are no separate drinking fountains or bathrooms or entrances or anything even remotely comparable. What would matter is whether everybody was entitled to the exact same rights and privileges under the law (which is the question the Supreme Court will be tackling very, very soon).
That emotional response to the very idea of the appearance of segregation carries a huge amount of weight, though. It would be easier for libertarians to push forward the concept of marriage (or civil unions, or what have you) as private contracts negotiated by adults if Paul weren't also claiming gay marriage indicated some sort of "crisis." I may fundamentally disagree with those who see a new form of segregation in the way Paul is approaching gay marriage, but it's very easy to look at just the surface of the debate and understand where that fear comes from. Should supporters of same-sex marriage recognition trust that a man who is telling the religious right that this country is in a moral crisis actually does support private contract marriages? Or unions? Or whatever semantic term we want to toss out?