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Gays’ long path to acceptance takes another turn

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. used that wonderfully heartening thought from 19th-century anti-slavery crusader Theodore Parker to encourage those who marched for civil rights. President Barack Obama used it recently to describe Nelson Mandela’s ordeal and triumph.

And those who are fighting against HJR3, the anti-gay-marriage amendment, should hold those words close to their hearts as well.

They have lost the first round, and this week, they may lose the second. The House has approved this wrongheaded measure, and the Senate takes up the debate this afternoon in Indianapolis.

In the short term, the only question may be whether the amendment will go through as it was passed previously, or whether it will emerge without its infamously ambiguous second sentence about all unions outside of marriage.

With the sentence, it would be on the ballot this fall; without it, the amendment likely could not go before Indiana voters until 2016.

But in the larger sense, even the effort to enshrine anti-gay law into the Indiana constitution may only help to replace ignorance and homophobia with acceptance and tolerance.

The University of Notre Dame’s David Campbell, co-author of the book “American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us,” notes an ironic trend that might be of interest to protagonists on both sides of this debate.

Research by Campbell and another political scientist at the university, Christina Wolbrecht, suggests a connection between the national battles over same-sex marriage and gays in the military, and public attitudes toward gays.

In the past, they write, public views of gays tended to center on how different or “deviant” they were, not just in terms of sex, but in terms of gay culture and values. The “gay liberation” movement of years past, which focused on repealing laws that criminalized homosexual behavior and preventing physical attacks on gays, in some ways only reinforced the stereotype of how “different” gay people were.

“The emergence of public policy debates about marriage/family and the military,” Campbell and Wolbrecht write, “helped to depict gays as people seeking similar goals as non-gays: establish long-term committed relationships, care for children, and serve in the military.”

Thus, they found, even though gay marriage and gays in the military met strong opposition, “by portraying gays as pursuing that vaunted American value of equality,” the battles seem to be making Americans, particularly younger Americans, more tolerant of gays.

So it’s possible that those legislators who are so stubbornly pushing the anti-gay-marriage amendment into the even more dramatic public arena of the fall election are only hastening the day when tolerance will overcome close-mindedness in Indiana.

It’s that old “arc of the moral universe.”