Revisiting the Defense of Marriage
July 12, 2004
As a matter of religious conviction —and standard English language definition— I have never felt that the term "gay marriage" meant much of anything, and would, perhaps, even call it an oxymoron. When the government, however, tries to step in and reinforce that definition with legal statutes, I immediately react against it as an unwarranted and discriminatory encroachment upon civil rights.
To be fair, there was until recently nothing to encroach upon —there was no practical right or ability for a non-man/woman relationship to be legally recognized. We all know that. And yet, just as the now-banned anti-sodomy laws, this never sat well with me.
The legal institution of marriage brings dignity and respect to the couple; confers legal benefits, rights, and responsibilities (parental, health, survivorship); and promotes monogamous relationships as a stabilizing agent within society.
I am willing to give that dignity and respect to my (admittedly few) gay friends, as much as I am to any random couple in America. I'll grant that there is probably a majority in America that do not now and never will give equal respect to a gay couple—but that is not a reason to deny access to a legal institution. Undoubtedly a pithy comparison to the Civil Rights movement could be made here, but such broad metaphors are all too often the device of demagogues.
The rights and responsibilities of a spouse largely stem from the traditional familial relationships: father working, mother cleaning, kids at school, etc. But the second plank has changed considerably. Society too has changed, both apart from and in reaction with women joining the work force in greater numbers. No longer is it necessary for a women to stay at home, and no longer is their a strong societal need for high levels of procreation (considered true at one time by those who wished to fill America from coast-to-coast with Europeans, and true again today with nations such as Italy). Thus if we are to continue granting spousal rights, why deny them for gay couples? This does, I admit, presuppose a mindset of some openness, tolerance, progressivism—whatever you want to call it.
The past several years have brought the issue of homosexuality to the fore of national attention. In the 1990's the Matthew Shepard case showed the extremes of hatred for gays. The rise in the rate of HIV/AIDS infections amongst straights forced the pundits to realize that AIDS is not solely " the wrath of God upon homosexuals." Texas's anti-sodomy laws shocked those who did not know about them, and the Supreme Court's decision to overrule them shocked those who genuinely believed that sodomy should be punished by law. The highest courts of several states found that their constitutions forbid discrimination against same-sex couples in the granting of marriage licenses, resulting in state constitutional amendments, the creation of civil unions, and Massachusetts's now official recognition of gay marriages. Meanwhile a handful of mayors defied state lawmakers by granting licenses to same-sex partners, unsurprisingly led by San Francisco (gay-friendly Austin did not follow). And now in this election year we have begun the ultimate debate—whether the states should be allowed to recognize gay marriages or the Constitution amended to forbid it.
I believe that society has a stake in promoting the equitable access of its individuals to the resources of life, preferably through a market-based system with minimal though carefully placed regulation of affairs. When regulation would not demean the general welfare of the people rather than promote it, I attempt to maintain consistency in opposing it. Though our capitalist, federated Republic has its flaws, it functions well at its best and enshrines the rights of its members in a still-revolutionary manner.
The membership of this federation is, of course, composed of two classes: individuals and states. Within the Constitution and its amendments are laws affecting and regulating the relationships between and amongst the two classes and the federal government itself. Within this context decisions are meant to devolve to the local level wherever feasible.
Thus it is that I am inclined to leave the question of gay marriage to the states, who have already been recognized as the final secular authority in other matters of wedlock. Sadly, the Constitution, which strives to insure the tyranny of neither the majority nor the minority, has a flaw in this regard:
"Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State." [Article IV, Section 1]
Wherefore, a marriage recognized in one state must be given equal rights and responsibilities in another state as that state grants to its own citizens. The tyranny of the minority is at hand.
What can and should be done to reconcile such a conundrum? No longer a merely theoretical discussion, may wish to bring rectification with what may be undue haste. It is true that the states are immediately placed in an unjust position. However, the short-term harm to the states is truly negligible, and would be a poor excuse for placing the greater emphasis on ratification than debate. We must grant a measured time for public discourse before attempting to legislate a resolution.
The issues before us are many and certainly call into question cherished assumptions of al idealogies. Can one state be allowed to impose its own morality on another? If not, should we then impose upon that state in denying its right to self-legislation? Or should we strike the requirement of states to recognize one another's licenses?
Going further, perhaps the legal rights of marriage itself must be refined. Should a non-child rearing, non-working spouse be granted the same pension, insurance, etc. as one removed from the workforce on behalf of the family? Some would say that these fiscal considerations are at the heart of today's debate.
The methods of resolving this conflict are many. The 20th century religious leader 'Abdu'l-Bahá said that "[t]he shining spark of truth cometh forth only after the clash of differing opinions." Let us then enter into civil debate, that we may arrive at the spark of truth with all deliberate speed.