Family Research Council senior fellows Cathy Ruse and Peter Sprigg are both extremely anti-LGBT—that is not news. Sprigg is notorious for saying he'd "prefer to export homosexuals from the United States" and that "there would be a place for criminal sanctions against homosexual behavior;" Ruse, who has referred to discredited "ex-gay" nonsense as an "other perspective" on par with those that "[promote] the homosexual lifestyle as natural and positive," led a national campaign against the Girl Scouts in large part because of their pro-LGBT stance. Both have made it clear where they stand, so whenever you hear that these two have managed to place a commentary in a mainstream news outlet like The Hill, you know it's going to be a biased piece that seeks to say whatever it can to justify the obviously anti-LGBT stance that is ingrained within the commentators.
But while many of us would question why a paper like The Hill would even give column space to people with such hostile agendas (Sprigg in particular) without giving readers context about who they are and for whom they work (FRC just issued a prayer pretty much saying that God will destroy pro-gay people), hopefully we can all commit ourselves to a few basic truths about opinion writing. For example, we can hopefully agree that if a pair of commentators insist on using a glaringly inaccurate label for a non-debatable point of fact that is concretely enshrined into law, then maybe that mainstream news outlet might want to think twice about whether or not these voices are actually fostering healthy debate.
So what am I getting at? Well, I'm talking about marriage. Or, as Sprigg and Ruse choose to call it when it applies to the legal marriages of same-sex couples: "marriage."
At seven different points in their Hill commentary on the marriage inequality they would like to see in the world (read it here), Ruse and Sprigg refer to same-sex couples' legally-recognized unions as "marriages"—the word placed in between deliberate "smear quotes." The obvious suggestion, so common in anti-gay circles, is that these marriages are not real marriages. In the most childish of fashions, the commentators who fight marriage equality for a living insist on writing the word this way, apparently thinking that the punctuation adds legitimacy to their resistance. Those of us who read their stuff are very used to seeing it, at least in their own biased media outlets.
But here we're talking about The Hill, a mainstream D.C. paper. Why does the paper accept this as an okay practice, even with its opinion writers? I mean, if a commentator submitted a column that insisted that a person's legally valid driver's license is really an alleged "driver's license," then the paper would probably get back to that writer with some feedback. At the very least, the paper would probably want the writer to make a compelling case for why he or she has taken upon his or her self to delegitimize something that the law fully recognizes. Yet here in the case of marriage, Sprigg and Ruse get to use the smear-quoted term throughout the column, as if doing so is perfectly normal and accurate. They appear in the paper as if they are mainstream columnists telling truths.
Yet they aren't telling truths. Regardless of how Sprigg and Ruse feel about our marriages (and let's be clear: they're not fans), their personal objections do not change the reality. Same-sex marriages are legally recognized in fourteen states (for now), in the nation's capital, and in federal law. A third of the American population now lives in a marriage equality state. Even people whose religious objections are staunch and unwavering must acknowledge that the civil marriages are valid. News outlets should do the same.
But by running this column, The Hill is helping promote factual inaccuracies. I'm not talking about differences of opinion or point of view, which we should expect (and even demand) from the opinion pages of any paper. Here we are talking about a patent untruth, presented as if it's common editorial practice. In fact, considering The Hill likely proofs its opinion columns, one could even surmise that the paper itself inserted the punctuation. I mean, I know that's not the case because I know that's not the paper's policy, but someone else might not know that. After all, there are outlets out there that take the AP's stories on marriage and insert smear quotes into them, per their own editorial guidelines. An uncritical and undiscerning reader could see this column and think that it's this paper's editorial practice that's guiding the markup.
And it's wrong. That's not my opinion—it's a fact. Calling a legal marriage an illegitimate "marriage" is wrong on its face and does not deserve to be promoted as if it's a truth. Doing so is anti-intellectual in a really base way. It takes a grownup national conversation about marriage rights and deliberately obfuscates it. It takes a subject in which there are legitimate differences of opinion and injects fake debates about terminolgy. Why would The Hill, a respected outlet, want to be party to that?