Gay marriage: an evolving debate

By on February 12, 2004

Some call it a “wedge issue” in the upcoming presidential election. Others call it the defining and most important social issue of this generation. Either way, the complicated debate on gay marriage is something that is poised to be a battleground over the coming months and years.

The Massachusetts (where else?) Supreme Judicial Court got the ball rolling on Nov. 18 when they ruled that denying marriage rights to gays is unconstitutional under the Massachusetts Constitution. The slim 4 to 3 majority cited equal protection and due process provisions that are violated by defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman. The court said that the new definition of marriage should be the “voluntary union of two persons as spouses.”

The ruling sparked widespread outrage among “traditionalists” (not just “conservatives”) who oppose changing the definition of marriage to suit an alternative lifestyle. This group included Republican Governor Mitt Romney, Democratic House Speaker Tom Finneran, and many rank-and-file state legislators. Accordingly, the Legislature asked the SJC for an advisory opinion on whether the creation of Vermont-style civil unions would satisfy the ruling. The unions convey most, if not all, of the state benefits of marriage without actually calling the union a “marriage.”

On Feb. 4, the SJC forcefully denounced civil unions and unequivocally stated that only the creation of gay “marriage” would suit the court. Unlike the original decision, this ruling showed bitterness between the opposing sides, with the majority stating that civil unions establish “an unconstitutional, inferior, and discriminatory status for same-sex couples.”

The three dissenting judges accused the majority of judicial “activism,” writing that “Under this proposed (civil unions) bill…there is only, on both sides, a squabble over the name to be used.” Indeed, the gay rights activists, in their effort to be equal in marriage, could wind up with nothing at all after the Legislature seemed willing to create an adequate civil union designation.

If four unelected judges are going to dictate public policy on such an important matter, as they have clearly done here, changing the Constitution becomes the alternative. The SJC’s advisory ruling has fired up even more support in Massachusetts for a state Constitutional Amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman. Romney came out in full support of the proposal, and Finneran has also indicated that he would support it.

The Legislature was scheduled to vote on the Amendment on Feb. 11. The Amendment would then have to clear two successive Legislatures before going to the voters in November 2006. Polls in Massachusetts have shown the public evenly split on the issue, with a slight majority opposing gay marriage.

Of course, any action taken by Massachusetts would be rendered moot if a federal Constitutional Amendment is passed for the same reason. President Bush, in his State of the Union, indicated that he would support an Amendment if activist judges continued doing the job of the Legislature. That is exactly what has happened in Massachusetts.

Another interesting aspect is that Senator John Kerry, the likely Democratic nominee for president, is from Massachusetts. Though he has said he is for civil unions but against gay marriage, he has not taken a definitive stance on the proposed state Amendment. The very fact that he is from Massachusetts throws an interesting twist on how this issue could play out in the presidential campaign.

It is my opinion that marriage is between a man and a woman. However, either way, it should be a decision made by the Legislature. Whichever way this goes next, it is sure to be a passionate social battle.


About A. J. Atchue