July 14, 2004

Love and Marriage

To nobody’s surprise (or at least, nobody inside the Beltway), the proposed Marriage Amendment to the Constitution belly-flopped in the U.S. Senate. Senators, by a slim majority, shot down a procedural motion that would have brought the amendment to a vote. In so doing, honorables avoided placing themselves on the record with regard to an issue that sends many of them into paroxysms of trepidation, trembling, and fear.

Here is the amendment in full:

“Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.”

The amendment affirms what the vast majority of Americans believe in their bones — that the word, “marriage” refers to the legally (and, for the devout, spiritually) binding union of husband and wife, and not to two women, two men, or any nontraditional pairings of sexes and species.

The Senate dodged the issue, but only temporarily. Eventually, Americans will have to decide what marriage ought to mean and which, if any, restrictions they want to place on the meaning of the word. For the record, I’m a firm believer in retaining the old-fashioned and long-held meaning of “marriage,” but I also think it’s a lousy idea to amend the Constitution to settle the matter.

Instead, we, the people, need to figure it out for ourselves. The issue causes many Americans to wince and many more to blush, but the stakes are real. Traditional marriage plays an indispensable role in the nurture of children and societies – for reasons I will spell out in a future blog entry – and few doubt the profound importance of the dispute.

As a helpful foundation for such a debate, let me set forth some propositions:

• Contemporary society accepts the reality of homosexuality.

• Americans generally support the idea of recognizing binding legal unions between gays and lesbians who have reached the age of consent. These unions would involve binding obligations similar to those created through marriage (with everything from transferable benefits to such grisly innovations as prenuptial agreements and community-property disputes).

• A large and sturdy majority in this country does not wish to call such unions “marriages,” preferring somewhat more sterile terms, such as “civil unions.”

• It is wrong to conclude that such traditionalists are bigots, just as it is wrong to conclude that gays and lesbians are child molesters. Both claims, often hurled by disputants on both sides, say more about the accusers than the accused.

• Judges should not settle this issue. Judicial diktats generally create more bitter discord than sweet tolerance. If judges insist on tinkering with such fundamental social issues, voters eventually will respond by amending the Constitution in order to prevent further abuse of judicial authority.

• The American people ought to settle this issue — through traditional democratic means, such as legislation, initiatives, or referendums.

Don’t assume for a moment that the Senate settled anything this week. The real debate has barely begun. Interested parties need to speak now or forever hold their peace.

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