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WATCH: Rachel Maddow and Ralph Reed spar over gay marriage
Sparks fly on NBC's normally staid Meet the Press when Maddow and Michael Eric Dyson debate Reed and Jim DeMint

The Sunday political talk shows often have the air of a polite conversation between politicians and pundits who have had the same policy discussions many times before, perhaps over cocktails and hors d'oeuvre at a Georgetown dinner party. Based on this weekend's Meet the Press, it seems pretty clear MSNBC host Rachel Maddow and former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed have never broken bread together.

The topic of discussion between Maddow, Reed, Heritage Foundation President Jim DeMint, and Georgetown University sociologist Michael Eric Dyson is same-sex marriage, after the Supreme Court's landmark rulings last week that the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is unconstitutional and California's gay-marriage-banning Prop 8 is history.

DeMint starts, arguing that the Supreme Court is "denying dignity" to the millions of Americans who want to protect marriage as a one-man-one-woman institution and preserve an "environment where children can thrive and succeed." Justice Kennedy "addressed that issue specifically," says Maddow. By denying marriage rights to same-sex couples who have kids, you're "humiliating and demeaning" those children, she says. Then Maddow hits her stride:

Gay people exist. There's nothing we can do in public policy that makes more of us exist, or less of us exist. And you guys have been arguing for a generation that public policy ought to essentially demean gay people as a way of expressing disapproval of that fact that we exist. But you don't make any less of us exist. You just are arguing in favor of discrimination. And more discrimination doesn't make straight people's lives any better.

Reed says he can't let that go. His problem, he says, is the idea that people who want to "affirm the institution of marriage" are "ipso facto intolerant." By that standard, President Obama was "a bigot" 14 months ago, as was Joe Biden and a huge majority of Congress in 1996, when DOMA was passed, and also Bill Clinton, who signed DOMA into law.

Dyson jumps in, saying the same arguments Reed and DeMint are making were once used to defend "white supremacy," but times changed. So "the pope is George Wallace," asks Reed. No, says Dyson, he's George Washington. NBC correspondent Pete Williams closes out the segment, defusing the tension somewhat by saying that the Supreme Court didn't actually decide on the constitutionality of gay marriage, and clearly doesn't want to.

As for the sparring parties — Reed on the Christian right and Maddow on the gay-rights left — they essentially agree not only to disagree but to continue the fight at the state level. Their Meet the Press debate raises some interesting points and tests out some rhetorical jabs. I would be surprised if the back-and-forth changes anyone's mind, but it's good political theater, and a good preview of the battle to come.

Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

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