When it comes to same-sex marriage, is pointed satire possible - not merely on the Jon Stewart or Jay Leno TV shows but in political life? Certainly not in federal court, where the issue has taken on a life-or-death quality for gays. But the ballot box is another story.
The most important gay-rights case ever starts next month in San Francisco's federal court building. There's talk of bringing TV cameras into the courtroom, a rarity in these staid precincts and an indicator of what's at stake.
Perry vs. Schwarzenegger challenges the constitutionality of Proposition 8, California's gay-marriage ban - and much more. By claiming that homosexuality is a “suspect classification,” a category that until now has been limited to race, religious groups and foreign-born citizens, the lawsuit puts homosexuality itself on trial.
Gay activists are understandably nervous. If the case reaches the Supreme Court, as generally predicted, the justices get to decide whether government has any legitimate reason to deny equal rights to homosexuals - not only marriage but all the legal entitlements, from overturning “don't ask, don't tell” to parenting, that gays and lesbians have been after since Stonewall. It's a long shot, because conservatives rule the bench, and losing the case could set back the gay-rights legal agenda by a generation.
Enough seriousness. A Sacramento Web-designer named John Marcotte is making a witty and potentially potent argument for marriage equality. The married father of two has drafted a 2010 ballot measure that would ban divorce in California, and his argument is devilishly simple - if marriage is as forever-and-for-keeps as the anti-gay-marriage contingent insists, then banning divorce will preserve its sanctity.
Getting on the ballot requires nearly 700,000 signatures, and unless you have millions of dollars to spend on signature-collectors, that's a nearly impossible feat. Hanging out in front of Walmart stores, peddling $12 T-shirts with the slogan “You said 'til death do us part' - You're not dead yet” and pitching the message that “Jesus still loves you if you get divorced - just not as much as before” won't carry the day.
But suspend your disbelief for a moment. It would be a helluva campaign if the measure actually were put to California's voters. Religious leaders who led the Prop. 8 campaign would be in a pickle.
The Catholic Church condemns the “mortal sin” of divorce. Wouldn't the clerics have to embrace an initiative that prohibits it? And what about the Mormons, who preach that divorce is the result of not living the Gospel - wouldn't they have to endorse it?
The anti-divorce idea also is pitched as a money-saver, with the real cost of divorce for California taxpayers pegged at $4.8 billion annually by the Institute for American Values. That argument could win over budget-conscious voters. Add in all those lesbian and gay voters, who get the joke, and chances of passage look even brighter.
It's a great stunt, and the campaign is getting attention, with 63,000 Google hits, an NPR piece and a Huffington Post article. That's its real purpose - to debunk, through humor, the humorless claim that the “sanctity” of marriage is the reason gays shouldn't be allowed to tie the knot - and on that score, it's mission accomplished.
But will Antonin Scalia, the justice who railed against the “homosexual agenda promoted by some homosexual activists directed at eliminating the moral opprobrium that has traditionally attached to homosexual conduct,” and his ilk get the message? Don't bet the farm.
David L. Kirp, James D. Marver professor of public policy at UC-Berkeley, is the author of the upcoming “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools.” This article was originally posted on SF Gate.