Increasingly, Americans are discovering that gay couples can be good neighbors who work, pay taxes, and contribute to their communities just like other couples. The vast majority of Americans support the kind of legal protections that domestic partnerships or civil unions can provide, such as the right to visit a partner in a hospital or share health insurance.

This growing acceptance has so alarmed some leaders of the extreme right that they are raising hysterical red flags, claiming that these steps toward basic fairness and decency are somehow going to destroy the institution of marriage. Last month, Sandy Rios, the president of Concerned Women for America, argued that “[Traditional marriage] is the very underpinning of civilization. If we remove those foundations, our entire civilization will come crumbling down.”

But the “marriage protection” movement is a smokescreen. It is true that many Americans are wrestling with the concept of extending the rights, responsibilities, and legal protections of civil marriage to same-sex couples. Congress and a number of states have passed so-called Defense of Marriage laws. But there is nothing close to a consensus for rolling back the progress we have made toward equality in the name of “protecting” marriage.

Yet that is exactly what the self-proclaimed defenders of marriage want to do – and even worse, they want to enshrine discrimination in the U.S. Constitution in the form of a constitutional amendment.

Advocates for equality are strongly fighting the unprecedented step of amending the Constitution to ensure that one group of Americans is denied equal protection of the laws – other constitutional amendments have expanded freedom, not contracted it.

At the same time, gay couples are challenging inequality in the courts. The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is expected to rule soon on whether same-gender couples are entitled to civil marriage licenses in the case “Goodridge v. Department of Public Health.” [Editor’s note: this article was written before the court ruling in favor of equal marriage rights for gay couples.] If the court affirms this right, rhetoric from groups like Rios’ will only intensify. In fact, the Associated Press reports that many prominent far-right groups plan to make “protecting” marriage their number one social issue in the 2004 election. To accomplish this, they are intentionally blurring the distinction between civil marriage and the religious sacraments of marriage.

Everyone – including gay rights advocates and their opponents – can find safe harbor in the religious liberty protections of the First Amendment. The First Amendment prohibits the government from compelling any religious group to perform a marriage ceremony between any two people, and at the same time prohibits legislatures from denying equality under the law to any group of Americans based on others’ religious beliefs.

The fact is, granting legal recognition to lesbian and gay relationships would have no effect whatsoever on the ability of churches and other houses of worship to define for themselves what relationships they will bless.

Civil marriage is an institution that establishes legal rights and responsibilities. People who are married by a judge, without any religious institution blessing their relationship, have exactly the same rights under the law as people who marry in a church. Some religious communities do not recognize divorce and remarriage and do not bless such unions, yet the law grants remarried people the same legal rights of civil marriage.

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states cannot refuse the rights of civil marriage to interracial couples. Some churches, legislators, and judges based their opposition to interracial marriage on their religious beliefs, and no church was forced to marry such couples. But no state could deny them protection under the law.

The institution of marriage did not come crumbling down after that 1967 ruling, nor will it come crumbling down when we acknowledge that gay and lesbian Americans should enjoy the same rights under the law that other Americans have. Our society is made stronger when couples choose to establish their commitment in legally sanctioned unions. We will be stronger when every family is protected in law. It’s the right thing to do. It’s the fair thing to do.

Ralph G. Neas is president of People For the American Way, www.pfaw.org.