Friday, June 09, 2006

Marriage and civil rights

Marriage has no place in the United States Constitution. That document, the foundation of our democracy, has existed for 217 years with nary a mention of this venerable, centuries-old institution. And we have to keep it that way.

There's no doubt that the traditional institution of marriage is in trouble. What was once viewed as a lifetime bond between a man and a woman — a bond some viewed as ordained, even preordained, by God — has become something of a transient social arrangement. Half of all marriages end in divorce. This has far-ranging negative implications for our society — and our economy. But what's ailing marriage isn't about to be cured by a constitutional amendment banning some people who want to get married from being able to do so.

Yet that's precisely the reason why the president says we should amend the U.S. Constitution to ban same-sex marriage — to "protect" the institution of marriage. What malarkey. But what did we expect him to say — that he's advocating the so-called marriage amendment to shore up his standing among right-wing religious fundamentalists? Not likely, even though that's obviously exactly what he's doing. It's infuriating — though not surprising — that the president would exploit this hot-button issue to make political hay, to try galvanize "the right" around this emotionally charged topic on the eve of congressional elections when control of the House will be at stake. The GOP needs the support of conservatives to hang onto the House; George has thrown the right a bone.

It's repulsive, really, to play with people's lives this way. It's especially revolting that the president chose this month, Gay Pride Month, to do it.

There are 27 amendments to the United States Constitution. The first 10, referred to as the Bill of Rights, were adopted and ratified almost immediately following the adoption of the constitution itself in 1789. The other 17 became the law of the land over the course of the next 200 years, with the most recent amendment (concerning setting the salaries of members of Congress) coming in 1992.

Generally, the constitutional amendments all deal with subjects like protecting individuals from government oppression, or with the structure and operation of government itself. Only once did politics corrupt the constitutional amendment process enough to steer it off course into the realm of attempting to legislate morality: in 1919 the 18th amendment was ratified, banning the manufacture, sale or transport of "intoxicating liquor." That was a dismal failure and is, to date, the only constitutional amendment that's been repealed. That ought to tell you something, Mr. President.

But the president doesn't really think his marriage amendment is going anywhere. He's just using the issue to rally supporters at a politically expedient moment. Fully aware of the torrent of emotion and hatred surrounding the issue of homosexuality among his right-wing "base" — heck, these are the people who protest military funerals shouting that God is punishing the U.S. for accepting gay people by allowing our soldiers to be killed — Mr. Bush has the brass to say he wants the nation to "conduct this difficult debate in a manner worthy of our country, without bitterness or anger." Fat chance.

We've treated gay people shabbily. The battle has been long and hard to gain even some semblance of acceptance, social justice and equal rights under the law. People point to passages of Scripture to defend laws that discriminate against gays. People used to point to Scripture to defend slavery, too. In any case, Scripture has no place in our system of government. The founding fathers saw to that with the very first amendment to our constitution, prohibiting the establishment of religion.

For me, as for countless other people here on the North Fork — your family members, friends and neighbors — this is a very personal issue. And it's a civil rights issue, not a morality issue. There are so many rights and privileges that married people take for granted — from having the right to be at the bedside of the one you love at the hospital ICU, to sharing health benefits, to having an exemption for your partner on your income tax return. Never mind the whole host of civil rights that are not guaranteed to people just because they are gay, the question of marriage aside.

Socially, things have gotten easier for gay people. There is more acceptance, less bigotry. Now it's time for the law to catch up to the realities of modern life. It's not time to go backwards, as the president proposes. And it's certainly not time to embroil the country in a bitter, hate-filled and pointless debate. There are far too many other truly important issues — the debacle in Iraq, the faltering economy, the trade and budget deficits, to name a few — that we really should be focusing on as a nation. But maybe taking attention away from these other issues is the real motive behind the president's shameless pandering to his "conservative base," after all.

© 2006