The National Catholic Review

Yesterday, a two-member Elections Board (yes, two-member; sometimes you can’t make this stuff up) ruled that the citizens of the District of Columbia have no right to vote on whether or not to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other jurisdictions.

Whatever you think of the issue of gay marriage on the merits – and I am opposed – pursuing political objectives by circumventing democratic norms in favor of the courts is a recipe for further political polarization. Some people who might be disposed towards the issue on the merits are turned off when told that they shall have no say in the matter.

Worse, recourse to the courts and invoking abstract notions of rights guarantees that the debate play to the extremes. This happened after Roe and it is happening over gay marriage. Going through the cumbersome legislative process, where negotiations and deals and compromises are the order of the day, you end up with something that approximates the ambivalence many people feel on these issues. When you go through the courts, you get more of an all-or-nothing result.

There are differences between abortion and gay rights of course. Polling indicates that the most important thing to know about where a voter will come down on the issue of gay marriage is there age: Young people, even self-described conservatives, even self-described evangelicals, are much more likely to be supportive of same sex unions of some sort. No such corollary between age and abortion shows up in the polls. So, the gay marriage issue might "age out" with a bit of patience but, instead, activists are trying to force the issue through the courts in ways that unsettle our democratic norms. This is unfortunate. Gay people are also citizens and have an interest in a well functioning government.

On the merits, I have just never understood why a legal remedy cannot recognize the millennia-long institution of traditional marriage and also grant those rights which fair-minded people agree same-sex couples should have, such as the right to visit a loved-one in hospital or to transfer property and assets without penalty. I also do not understand how, in a city like DC where the AIDS rate is spiking among minority communities, especially the poor, gay marriage has become the most important issue.

In my book "Left at the Altar: How the Democrats Lost the Catholics and How the Catholics Can Save the Democrats" I argued that words have meanings and that this word "marriage" has a meaning that has accrued to it over centuries. In his book "1984" George Orwell was at pains to show that one of the scariest things about Big Brother was they way the government changed the meaning of words. Opposing this novelty may involve homophobia for some but there are non-homophobic reasons to oppose it too.

So, this time the renewed fighting in the culture war comes from the Left. That does not make it any less regrettable.

 

Comments

Anonymous | 6/18/2009 - 2:14pm
Gays and lesbians benefit from the Sacrament whether the ceremony occurs or not, since the Sacrament of Matrimony is a do-it-yourself affair - at least that is what was taught in both Catholic High School, pre-Seminary Sacraments class and pre-Cana class.  The priest is a witness.  While the families and community certainly don't have a "right" to participate, it is better if they do.  (BTW, in prior centuries, they did have a veto).
Anonymous | 6/17/2009 - 2:50pm
Michael B - I hadn't thought it rational-legal (nor is there anything wrong with this, necessarily, is there? We certainly wouldn't want to be irrational or illogical) but simply a properly pious way of construing the thing. Which is to say that I found the notion that all have a right tot he sacrament of marriage to be distinctly im-pious. The Sacraments are outward signs of inward graces; graces are a gift from God, irrespective of our worthiness. That isn't to say we have a right to them no matter our worth because merit never need enter in to it, but that the privilege of enjoying them should be especially striking for the participants. This may be a legalistic distinction but it is still a true one. A Sacrament is a sign of love much in the same way that arriving home to be surprised by your partner having left early to make a hot meal for the both of you is a sign of love. Beyond that, none of the arguments you have presented (the practicalities that adhere to a civil marriage) aren't compelling as they never explain why it must be "marriage" and not a civil union or the like. I am not, nor should anyone be (and nor is the Church) in the business of denying rights to a minority.
Anonymous | 6/17/2009 - 11:35am
PS, The marriage is not invalid if the parents are not present - however for a long time they did ask the question - and in some cases still do - "who gives this person to be married."  They probably don't ask this when they know the parents will choke on the words, but it is still part of the Rite. I mention the death of myself or my sister to illustrate the fact that gay marriages can and do involve the raising of children.  To amplify, if my brother had custody of either my child or my nephew, his husband, who is a realtor, would likely be the one to pick up a sick child, sign permission slips, chaperone field trips, etc.  If Texas recognized their marriage in the same way as if he married a woman, legal custodial custody would not be an issue. Marriage itself is a covenant relationship made by the parties.  To call the celebration of any Sacrament a "priviledge" is a very rational-legal way to regard membership in God's family.
Anonymous | 6/17/2009 - 4:08pm
Let the religious groups retain the right to perform marriages. The State should be the SOLE agency that grants a license that entitles a couple to SECULAR benefits, rights and obligations. If anyone wants a religious group to subsequently wave their magic wands over their relationship, so be it.  Many of us want religion to keep the he** out of my rights as a citizen of these United States.
Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 7:11pm
Dean - I would suggest that it really isn't your marriage any more than your body is your body. We celebrate in the Euxharist because we are permitted to do so. The Sacrament of Marriage isn't a right, but a privelege.
Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 5:09pm
Circumventing democratic norms? Since when does democracy require a direct vote? I'm pretty sure our system of representative democracy has been working pretty well. The anti-gays only seem to have a problem with it when they can't pass laws that discriminate against a tiny minority of the population they don't like. Bottom line, the democratically elected DC Council passed the marriage recognition bill overwhelmingly, and it was signed by DC's democratically elected Mayor.  The Elections Board, an independent agency of the District government (which consists of three active Board members, an Executive Director, a General Counsel, NOT just 2 members as your article states) found that a referendum discriminating against out of district gay marriages violated the democratically enacted Human Rights Act. I'd suggest reading the Federalist Papers.
Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 3:58pm
Homosexuality is not a choice.  Just like you don't choose the color of your skin, you cannot choose whom you are sexually attracted to. If you can, sorry, but you are not heterosexual, you are bi-sexual. Virtually all major psychological and medical experts agree that sexual orientation is NOT a choice. Most gay people will tell you its not a choice. Common sense will tell you its not a choice. While science is relatively new to studying homosexuality, studies tend to indicate that its biological. http://www-news.uchicago.edu/releases/03/differential-brain-activation.pdf http://www.newscientist.com/channel/sex/dn14146-gay-brains-structured-like-those-of-the-opposite-sex.html Gay, Straight Men's Brain Responses Differ http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,155990,00.html http://www.livescience.com/health/060224_gay_genes.html http://www.springerlink.com/content/w27453600k586276/ http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/80beats/2008/06/16/172/ There is overwhelming scientific evidence that homosexuality is not a choice. Sexual orientation is generally a biological trait that is determined pre-natally, although there is no one certain thing that explains all of the cases. "Nurture" may have some effect, but for the most part it is biological. And it should also be noted that: "It is worth noting that many medical and scientific organisations do believe it is impossible to change a person's sexual orientation and this is displayed in a statement by American Academy of Pediatrics, American Counseling Association, American Association of School Administrators, American Federation of Teachers, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American School Health Association, Interfaith Alliance Foundation, National Association of School Psychologists, National Association of Social Workers, and National Education Association."
Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 12:52pm
Mr. Winters: You write that ''the gay marriage issue might 'age out' with a bit of patience but, instead, activists are trying to force the issue through the courts in ways that unsettle our democratice norms.''  I suggest it's time for you to read (or re-read, as the case may be) Martin Luther King Jr.'s ''Letter From a Birmingham Jail.''  I also sugges you read Taylor Branch's three-volume history of the civil rights movement. While there are clear differences between the struggle against racism in this country and the struggle for gays and lesbians against heterosexism - and in this sense I am in no way comparing the two as equivalent - there are, nevertheless, certain parallels which prove instructive for any marginalized group seeking change in the established order.  These include: exhortations from the dominant group for the marginalized to be ''patient;'' to not change the meaning of long-held conception, terms, traditions, or worldviews; to trust the very democratic process which has failed to secure the conditions which would make the margin's struggle unnecessary in the first place; to not create divisions (which, of course, already exist, but are surfaced and made visible by the marginalized); to not seek legal, social, cultural, economic, or political redress; etc. Again, I am not comparing the horrendous physical and structural violence enacted against black people struggling for inclusion in the civil rights movement with the problems facing gays and lesbians in their struggle to obtain civil marriage.  I am, however, suggesting that there is a strange similarity in the advice given by the dominant group for the best way the marginalized should go about their struggle. I'm sorry if you feel ''ambivalent,'' ''turned off,'' or ''unsetteles,'' by the attempt of gays and lesbians to change established meanings that have accrued over centuries.  You can, however, take heart for those who experienced these same feelings in the face of the black struggle for civil rights.  It seems that these feelings dissipate once change actually takes place and the majority are no longer supported by the laws of the nation or state.  In fact, they dissipate so radically that the majority actually elects a president from the very marginalized group it had once thought too uppity. Finally, you might also want to re-read Acts 11:1-18 where Peter goes through similar feelings of beings unsettled, when, in a vision, he's told to eat unclean animals.  After all, the meaning of clean vs. unclean had accrued over centuries and was codified in Jewish law. Peter too tries to resist at first - feeling ambivalent and turned off - but eventually (with the help of the Spirit) he comes around, and lo and behold, today we even have a Gentile in the Office traditionally associated with Peter.
Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 12:40pm
My brother and I were each married in Massachusetts.  He is straight and I am gay.  No voter in D.C. should have the right to deny recognition of either marriage.  You or any D.C. voter may be "turned off" by the fact that you won't have a say in the matter...but it's my marriage, not yours...and I certainly don't have a say in whether your marriage should be valid...that was never put up for me to vote on.   If my brother can move wherever he wants and have his marriage is recognized, then I should have that very same right.  I believe the Constitution guarantees me that right, and my rights nor his should ever be put up for popular vote.  What if yours was?
Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 8:27am
When the best argument those opposing same-sex marriage can offer is that "words havemeanings and that this word 'marriage' has a meaning that has accruedto it over centuries," then opposition to same-sex marriage doesn't rest on a compelling foundation. The meaning of words shifts constantly, because language is alive and the meaning of words takes on new dimensions as people's outlook on issues change.  The movement for acceptance of same-sex marriage is not being dictated from on high by linguistic orders from the government, as your Orwell analogy implies. That movement arises out of the awareness of a critical mass of Americans that it is unconstitutional and unjust (and, for many of us who belong to faith traditions, immoral, in violation of fundamental tenets of our moral codes) to exclude a group of people from human rights others enjoy.  To exclude that group for reasons that are not persuasive and have to do with innate characteristics over which individuals have no control . . . . Growing up in the American South of the Civil Rights period, I heard the argument "words have meaning" over and over again.  Defenders of legal segregation applied that argument to any attempt to change how we white Southerners viewed and treated people of color.  We were doing what we had done from time immemorial.  We were cherishing the age-old traditions handed down to us by our forebears. Though we sought to combat those who called on us to alter our views and behavior by speaking of judicial activism and federal dictatorship, when a national societal consensus formed around recognition of the fundamental rights of people of color, we had no choice except to relinquish our battle.  And, if we valued rationality and conscience, to admit that we had been spectacularly wrong in defending traditions that could not be justified morally or in light of the constitution . . . .
Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 7:29pm
Patrick, your posting recommends an article about gay marriage at the "Catholic Answers" website.  You state that this is a good discussion of gay marriage. But the article you recommend cites the discredited research of Paul Cameron, who told the told the Conservative Political Action Committee conference in 1985 that "extermination of homosexuals" might be needed in the next three to four years, and who has called AIDS a godsend. I recommend the discussion of Cameron's work at the Southern Poverty Law Center website at www.splcenter.org/intel/intelreport/article.jsp?pid=872#9. And it troubles me very much to find such bogus "science," which distorts scientific data in order to foment hate, recommended on a Catholic website.  If the argument against gay marriage is a morally sound one, surely it can make its case without resorting to spurious "scientific" data designed to foster hate.
Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 1:29pm
1. William- That words have import is hardly a bad argument, if we acknowledge that fact that the single biggest reason I have heard in favor of using the word "marriage" rather than "union" or the like from gay friends has been because the word _is_ important. That it signifies an important level of acceptance and equally. That the meaning of words shift is true. That they shift very slowly is also true. That the definition of the word "marriage" should be fundamentally different tomorrow than it was 30 years ago (and right or wrong this is a fundamental change in definition) makes about as much empirical sense as my waking up tomorrow to find that the definition of orange was now the definition of grapes. 2. Andy- I am not sure that, this being a Catholic blog, why we should be placing on a sort of equal playfield what people have come to mean by marriage versus the great body of knowledge the Church has developed on the Sacrament? 3. Michael B- The only way your argument becomes totally intelligible is if the Church is left completely out of it. There is a lot of talk about civil law without any suggestion that it should or could be changed or wrong. You bring up the California law to imply (to my mind, anyway) that only malice could discourage the re-definition of the Sacrament of Marriage rather than, to paraphrase MSW, a desire to remain within the auspices of the magesterium. Context is important, so making the language gender neutral is, to my mind, to willfully ignore quite a few facts. And once again, we encounter the argument which runs - "Well _x_ (to which I was never really all that opposed in the first place) is now, as I see it, inevitable, we should simply move on and try to attain the next best good." This hardly sounds like courageous virtue to me. It sounds like a slimy way of never having to argue something you were never too comfortable arguing in public. And what is all this about the parents' losing a child? The Church should celebrate gay weddings for _the sake of the family_? I am not a canon lawyer (which is probably obvious - I doubt I've made my points as well as I could) but it strikes me as bizarre that a marriage is ever celebrated for the parents. What if my parent's object to the marriage? The necessary parties amongst the laity are a couple of witnesses and the bride and groom. I have never heard that a marriage is invalid or full of liturgical abuse when the parents aren't present.
Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 10:45am
Gay 'marriage' is discussed very well here: [url=http://www.catholic.com/library/gay_marriage.asp]http://www.catholic.com/library/gay_marriage.asp[/url] It provides the authentically Catholic perspective
Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 9:46am
Michael, you are absolutely wrong about this, regardless of the merits.  In a natural rights democracy, the righs and priviledges of other people are not put up to a vote - period.  They are inalienable.  It's not judicial activism, its the courts doing their job.  Checking the power of the legislature over individuals is one of the key checks and balances in our system.  The rights of the individual are not absolute here, however there must be a rational justification for infringing upon them.  Because this is complicated, the judges of whether the restriction is rational are, well, judges. Of course, in this case, the matter was put out by the Council of the District of Columbia and the dispute was whether a referendum on the matter would abridge the priviledges and immunities of gays and lesbians as stated in the District's Human Rights Act.  Quite obviously, the proposed referendum would, so according to the District Charter, as amended, the matter cannot be put up for a vote.  In a natural rights democracy, it should not be. As to the merits, there are two questions.  The first is whether there is a rational basis in civil law for a gay spouse have less rights than a straight spouse vis-a-vis an individual's family of origin.  To illustrate, a straight spouse has displaced the family of origin in regards to every question of property distribution, including the body of the deceased.  (Note that questions of procreation do not apply, since there is no barrier in civil - and indeed canon - law for denying heterosexual females who are past their child bearing years the right to marry.  If procreation were the rational basis, one would have to deny women "of a certain age" marriage licenses.)  The second question is whether there is a rational basis for having civil unions which meet the requirements of the first question and not calling them marriage.  In the California case, the allegation is that the only reason is malice towards gays and lesbians.  This is not a rational basis under law and has already been used to invalidate state action allowing discrimination based on sexual orientation. The words of the Lord are instructive on this, if you make them gender neutral.  When a man is married, he and his spouse are one flesh.  What that essentially means is that they are the same person in law and society.  The interest of the parents is gone.  This is also the reason that the Church should celebrate gay weddings - not for the couple (who I believe are married before God when they say they are - which is also the case for heterosexuals - as the Church herself teaches in pre-Cana) - but for the families who are losing a member to a new spouse.  Now that gay marriage is inevitable in the civil law, those of us who have gay brethren should be respected by the Church by allowing us to recognize these marriages and pray that God may be part of the union (which in our families case already has children within it by my brother in laws first marriage and may have more if anything happens to my wife and I or my sister and her husband - as both of us have named my brother as provisional guardian).
Anonymous | 6/16/2009 - 9:00am
Mr Winters- I ususally find your posts very informative and thought provoking, even when I disagree with them.  On this one, I think you've missed something though.  I'm a gay man, and very much in favor of gay marriage, though like you I would suggest that the best way to do this (precisely to avoid polarization) is through the democratic process rather than courts of committees of any size.  That being said, there is also something that is rather chilling about allowing the majority to vote on the rights (abstract or not) of the minority.  Were this the approach that had been followed in the South in the fifties and sixties, Jim Crow would still rule.  Secondly, I find your Orwellian analogy strikingly inapt.  When it comes to marriage, there simply is no easy definition.  The meaning has changed dramatically over the course of the millenium (and more!) from a means of property exchange between families to a loving, affectionate bond between two people.  Though the more individualistic defintion of marriage carries great problems along with it, it is the one that dominates in society.  Marriage, for many people, is a statement of loving commitment between two persons, and the sex of those persons is far less important.  This is possibly the biggest reason why so many young people have so little issue with same-sex marriage (that and actually knowing many more gay people than their parents might).  The state recognizing that this shift in definition and sensibility has already largely taken place is far different than changing the Defense Department to the Department of Peace.