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Gay Marriage: The Debate Continues
Reality on the ground VS a Constitutional Amendment

The debate over same sex marriage comes down to this. As cities and states across the US recognize civil unions, or in the case of San Francisco and Massachusetts, issue marriage licenses to gay couples, what was once an abstract, largely theoretical argument, now must be played out against a new reality. On the ground, and in real life, gay marriage exists. About this there can be no debate. Gay and lesbian couples are living as families, raising children, contributing to their communities, joining and even leading churches and synagogues, and in countless other ways, establishing their presence as valuable and respected members of society.

While the opponents of gay marriage raise ever more passionate objections, the reality on the ground cannot and will not be reversed. To be sure, large numbers of Americans, probably a significant majority, continue to feel that gay marriage is somehow inappropriate, immoral, or just plain wrong. Still, the increasing visibility in our midst of family units headed up by openly gay couples alters the terms of the debate fundamentally. Now those who object find themselves in the awkward position of trying to attach words like "sinful," immoral," or "contrary to the will of God," to actual human beings living in actual families with lives as wonderful and complicated as their own.

Beyond name calling, what can opponents of gay marriage offer? For one thing, of course, heterosexual couples can attempt to demonstrate by the persuasive power of their example that a traditional, loving relationship between "one man and one woman" is something to be admired. Set an example by being a positive, contributing presence in local communities, in churches, and in public life generally. If you think that the conventional model of marriage is to be preferred by future generations, prove it by demonstrating the constructive difference that such relationships can make on the ground where people can see what you are talking about.

Sadly, I don't think the opponents of gay marriage are going to be satisfied by relying upon the power of persuasion. Rather, lacking confidence in their convictions, those opposed to gay marriage already speak about using force, in this case the force of law, in the form of a constitutional amendment. Here is the language of the amendment now being considered in Congress and in the White House. "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, nor state ... law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."

The language of the proposed amendment is rather obtuse; but the meaning is clear. Having defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman, the Constitution would then prohibit any "unmarried couples" from enjoying either the subjective privileges of "marriage" or any of its legal benefits. Even those who have entered into a "civil union" recognized by a city or state would, by the force of law, be denied all of the rights pertaining to marriage. Health insurance benefits, inheritance and property rights, even the privilege of visiting a loved one on his or her death bed in a hospital and making life or death decisions about medical treatment ... all of this would be denied by the full force and authority of the Constitution of the United States.

Is this any way to protect the sanctity of marriage? I don't think so. For in a deeper sense, sanctity cannot be conferred by the force of law. Traditionally, the realm of the sacred belongs to God, not human governments, and if traditional marriage is to be defended by any human institution, it would be the church, the synagogue or the mosque that bears such a weighty and humbling responsibility, rather than the state. I would think this is a point that conservatives and liberals would agree on. Certainly, anyone with a faith deep enough to place his or her trust in God should be more confident in allowing the sanctity of this precious institution to be upheld by the authority of a loving God, not an institution as subject to the corrupting influences of political power as the U.S. Congress.

The sanctity of marriage is of God, not governments

Fortunately the founders of this Republic saw fit to make it exceedingly difficult for such Constitutional meddling. The founders decreed that a proposed amendment to the Constitution must achieve super-majorities: two-thirds of the vote in both chambers of Congress, and then win ratification by three-fourths of the states. In the history of this country thousands of amendments have been proposed, but only 17 since the original 10 in the Bill of Rights have received support sufficient to become a part of the Constitution.

In fact, so cumbersome is the process of amending the Constitution that the most recent amendment to pass muster was first proposed in 1789 and was not ratified by three-fourths of the states until 1992! That's a little over two centuries! Should anything like that be required for this amendment to be fully considered, I am confident that both the reality on the ground, and the will of God, would, by that time be as self-evident as the foundational principle of this Republic: namely, that the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness belongs equally to all of God's children.

For more on this topic see: The Blessings of Gay Marriage.

Homosexuality and the Bible

For Poll and Discussion, click here: Gay Marriage is ...

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.