Froma Harrop

is a columnist for the Providence Journal

The May 15 California court decision advancing gay marriage will reignite "the debate," say the headlines.

What impact will the issue have on the presidential campaigns? My guess is very little. The more time passes since Massachusetts legalized same-sex nuptials (four years ago this month), the less people care about them. Gay marriage hasn't snagged the tiniest thread in the social fabric of the Bay State, which also happens to have the lowest divorce rate in the country.

But there is a marriage debate we ought to have - or to put it more accurately, a non-marriage debate. More than half of American households are now headed by single people. They include young singles and confirmed bachelors, the widowed and the divorced. Some are gay. Most are straight. Except for an occasional nod to elderly widows, single people and their concerns are nearly invisible in the presidential campaigns.

I have nothing against gay marriage per se. I do agree with Dick Cheney (it happens at times) that domestic law is rightly a matter for the states. That way, same-sex marriage evolves with time, starting off in the parts of America that are most comfortable with the idea. Eventually, it will be commonplace.

The troubling aspect of the push for gay marriage is the part that perpetuates the notion of marriage as a goody bag for sundry government and corporate benefits. A gay advocate asks, "Why can't I leave my $4 million estate to my partner tax-free, as Jane and Joe Jones next door can do?" Valid question - but then one asks: "What about Widow Smith and her sister, who have lived together for decades? Shouldn't tax law favor their estates, as well?"

Such a case has in fact been circulating around the European courts. Joyce Burden, 90, and Sybil Burden, 82, are unmarried English sisters who have spent more than 30 years in a house left them by their father. Under British law, when one of the women dies, the surviving sister will be hit with an inheritance-tax bill of 40 percent of her share of the estate over a certain amount. The house has become quite valuable, and the sisters say that whoever outlives the other will have to sell it to pay the inheritance tax. The Burden sisters thought that unfair.

So they brought their case before the European Court of Human Rights. There they demanded the same tax benefits now afforded married gay as well as hetero couples in Europe. The court turned them down, arguing that their relationship was of a different nature than that of married people. Now, what could that different nature be other than the presumption of sexual contact? By the way, do the English taxing authorities know whether a married couple is having sex?

Back in this country, 7 percent of respondents to a recent Kaiser Family Foundation poll said they had gotten married to obtain health insurance through their spouse's plan. "Medically covered" should become a category on the dating sites.

It's easy to understand why gay people would want to get in on the marriage gravy train. There's just no logic, however, for there being one. A stable marriage is the ideal institution for raising children, but we already have tax benefits focused on parents. Given the growing percentage of unmarried adult Americans, the whole obsession with same-sex marriage has become rather dated.

Keep marriage as a romantic and religious ideal for those who choose to partake. Public policy, on the other hand, should be marriage-neutral.

This is the marriage issue that the leading candidates should be addressing. You just know they won't touch it.

Contact Froma Harrop at fharrop@projo.com.