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Framing the Debate on Same-Sex Marriage

Proponents Push Civil Rights Arguments, But Doubts Abound

BOSTON, Massachusetts, NOV. 29, 2003 (Zenit) - Debates intensified after the Nov. 18 decision by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court mandating a right to marriage for same-sex couples. What form any legislative action may take, and whether full-marriage equivalency will be granted, is still undefined as politicians struggle with this thorny issue.

One factor making life more difficult for defenders of traditional concepts of marriage is how the terms of the debate are being formulated. Instead of a conflict over the merits or otherwise of homosexuality, or a debate over family values, homosexual activists have succeeded in portraying their quest as a civil rights issue.

A Nov. 21 article in the Christian Science Monitor observed that Massachusetts Chief Justice Margaret Marshall, who wrote last week's majority opinion, says she has lived through two revolutions -- the overthrow of apartheid in her native South Africa, and the advancement of women in the United States. Now she has started the third revolution.

Neil Rudenstine, a former president of Harvard University, who hired Marshall as general counsel before her appointment to the court, said of her South African roots: "The experience of seeing so many people deprived of rights has given her a special sensitivity."

Marshall is married to retired New York Times columnist Anthony Lewis. In editorials, the Times and its sister paper The Boston Globe have embraced the rhetoric of civil rights in order to gain marriage status for same-sex unions.

A New York Times editorial of Nov. 20 paralleled the situation to the battle to overcome racism. "When the rights of disadvantaged groups are newly recognized, there is often opposition, some of it fierce, and the road ahead may be rough," it said. "But like the early court rulings striking down segregation, this has the feel of a legal revolution beginning."

Boston Globe columnist Eileen McNamara, in a Nov. 19 commentary, wrote: "The right to a marriage license is a matter not of morality or of religion or of ethics but of equality under the law."

Alan Hirsch, senior consultant for the Williams Project on Sexual Orientation Law and Public Policy at the University of California-Los Angeles' School of Law, also saw similarities with past civil rights issues. Writing in the Los Angeles Times on Nov. 19, Hirsch put the Massachusetts decision in the same category as the U.S. Supreme Court's 1967 decision in Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage.

And as some Massachusetts legislators are considering giving same-sex couples recognition as civil unions, but not marriage, a Nov. 25 editorial in the Boston Globe warned against this move, saying it would be "demeaning to all citizens no matter what their sexual orientation." The editorial warned: "Fundamental civil rights cannot and should not be compromised."

"Not a lifestyle choice"

A Chicago Tribune editorial of Nov. 20, however, observed that equal rights for homosexuals in the context of employment or other matters is one thing, but that "marriage is an institution that reaches beyond government and enters the realm of religious and social institutions."

"Reserving marriage to a man and a woman has never been premised on mean-spirited exclusion," explained Douglas Kmiec, in a Nov. 19 article for the Los Angeles Times. Kmiec, a professor of constitutional law at Pepperdine University, explained that heterosexual marriage is based on thousands of years of experience, and that "marriage is a cultural institution, not merely a lifestyle choice."

The National Association for Research and Therapy of Homosexuality also pointed out that more than civil rights are at stake. "The state has a right to promote the traditional family, which is rooted in marriage," said the group's vice president, A. Dean Byrd, in a Nov. 19 press release. "Children are ideally brought up in a home with a mother and father -- not two 'fathers' or 'mothers.'"

The statement also pointed out adults' rights are not the only factor involved. "Gay partnerships pose a real danger to the safety and emotional well-being of children," declared the press release.

Contradiction in terms

The U.S. bishops in their Nov. 12 statement on same-sex marriage explained that men and women complement each other and that this complementarity, which includes a sexual difference, "draws them together in a mutually loving union that should be always open to the procreation of children."

On the level of revelation the Bible provides ample evidence that marriage is reserved for the union of opposite sexes. A man "leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body" (Genesis 2:24). Jesus confirms that text saying, "But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female. For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother [and be joined to his wife], and the two shall become one flesh''' (Mark 10:6-8).

Thus, "a same-sex union contradicts the nature of marriage," the bishops affirm. Not only are same-sex unions not based on the natural complementarity of male and female, but they cannot cooperate with God to create new life, they add.

But restricting marriage to heterosexual couples is not just a question of faith, the document observes. "Across times, cultures, and very different religious beliefs, marriage is the foundation of the family," it says. "The family, in turn, is the basic unit of society. Thus, marriage is a personal relationship with public significance."

The bishops also noted that marriage between a man and a woman provides the best conditions for raising children. Hence, "the state rightly recognizes this relationship as a public institution in its laws because the relationship makes a unique and essential contribution to the common good."

Maintaining a privileged legal status for heterosexual marriage is important, the document adds. "Laws play an educational role insofar as they shape patterns of thought and behavior, particularly about what is socially permissible and acceptable." Moreover, denying the same legal status to same-sex unions does not constitute an injustice, "because marriage and same-sex unions are essentially different realities."

Canada's bishops also dealt with the question of same-sex unions. Marriage is a "natural institution that precedes all social, legal and religious systems," they pointed out in a statement published Sept. 10.

Marriage, they noted, "has a fundamental and irreplaceable role in building societies and civilizations." And for this reason it has been protected as an institution in the past. Marriage is the basis of the family and provides "a stable and positive environment in which to care for children and so educate future generations."

"The marriage of a man and a woman is not just one form of association or institutional model among others," they explained. "The relationship created by marriage between a woman and a man is a fundamental human reality which is at the basis of the social community."

And when it comes to a state's laws, continued the Canadian bishops, these "must be developed not only according to their impact on individuals, but also according to their impact on the social fabric." For this reason the state is perfectly justified in giving recognition and preference to heterosexual marriage, owing to its contribution to society's common good. "It is not discriminatory to treat different realities differently," they added. The task now facing the defenders of marriage is to get this message across to the public.

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