In not-too-distant past, traditional marriage more about money than love

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2004

My cousin. One of my favorite college professors. My high school friend. These are the people whose weddings I will never get to attend, if President George W. Bush gets his way with a proposed constitutional amendment outlawing gay marriage.

Bush himself admitted that this issue of same-sex marriage and gay rights in general is a sensitive one, requiring public discourse. But the fact is, conversations about homosexuality rarely result in discourse. More often than not, they end in emotional debate and religious conviction.

So let me start by saying this: I fully believe in each person's right to his or her own religious and moral beliefs. That, I might point out, is already in our blessed Constitution:

"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

It is that very statement that lends credence to the argument against Bush's proposed amendment.

President Bush and, I admit, a great number of other citizens say the amendment is necessary to protect the institution of marriage, the sanctity of marriage, the tradition of marriage.

So let's talk about marriage. What is it?

"The union of a man and a woman is the most enduring human institutions ... honored and encouraged in all cultures and by every religious faith," Bush said. "Ages of experience have taught humanity that the commitment of a husband and wife to love and to serve one another promotes the welfare of children and the stability of society."

In many ways, this is a wonderful ideal. But it is not marriage in a traditional or modern sense in our country.

When people say we have to preserve the tradition of marriage, I bristle.

Because we seem to forget that not so many years ago, marriage was less about love and commitment and more about finances and responsibility.

Men and women were paired by their families or societal groups, often with money and-or property exchanging hands. Dowries and down payments were transferred. Women's property, once they married, became the property of their husbands.

Marriage in that day and age which was not long ago at all was often a real estate transaction. In many parts of the world, this remains the case.

Thank you, but I for one would rather not have a "traditional" marriage.

Likewise, when we talk about the sanctity of marriage, I have to wonder if lifelong commitments by homosexual couples are really the primary threat.

One of the first lesbian couples married by the courts in San Francisco this year was two women who had been in a committed partnership for 28 years. That's longer than a great many heterosexual marriages in our country.

Nearly 50 percent of all marriages end in divorce today. My father was divorced. My stepfather is divorced. I don't hold this against either. Most children in school today are raised in single-parent or blended-family homes. In my case, it has worked well. But that doesn't change the fact that marriage has come to mean something other than lifelong commitment.

Then there are the really serious problems, like domestic abuse. According to a 1993 National Crime Statistics Report, domestic violence occurs in 60 percent of marriages, and 90 percent of battered women reported that their children were present at the time of the abuse.

I agree that committed relationships and loving homes are vital to the welfare of children. But given the statistics, it's hard to believe that homosexual couples could do significantly worse than heterosexuals have done thus far.

But let's go back to the "institution" and "sanctity" of marriage. The cornerstone of this whole debate rests on the definition of marriage itself, and whether it is a state or religious institution. The Constitution tells us it can't be both, because the government can't support the establishment of religion. Yet, in our society, marriage is indeed interchangeably secular and religious.

If it is a religious institution and I believe it should be then individual churches, denominations and faiths should have the right to define marriage based on their own beliefs and traditions, without government interference. Already, many churches have made or are in the process of making those decisions.

If marriage is a civil union, under the jurisdiction of the government, then it should be open to all citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation without religious dogma entering the argument. It cannot be available to some and not to others, because that very notion defies the entire basis of equality and freedom; the foundation of this country.

Bush himself said, "Government, by recognizing and protecting marriage, serves the interests of all."

The problem is that with this amendment, it doesn't serve the interests of all. It serves the interests of heterosexuals, who may be the majority, but do not constitute "all."

By having different rules for different people, we do indeed hurt society.

Those different rules serve to discount the humanity of our neighbors.

They say it's all right to discriminate.

They tell us whose feelings are valid and whose are not.

They tell us who we can love and who we can't.

That doesn't even touch on what such rules tell children who may be confused about their feelings and sexual identities or what they tell homosexual teens, who studies say are anywhere from two to 14 times as likely to attempt suicide as their heterosexual peers.

Perhaps religion which comes as a choice to individuals is allowed to make such rules.

Personally, I believe in a God who celebrates love, in all its forms. I believe in a God who loves his children and can look deeper into their hearts than any human ever could. I believe in a God who taught us to love one another and to leave judgment to him.

I fully understand that people have many different interpretations of God, though, and that for many, those interpretations say something different about homosexuality in the eyes of God.

That's all right. I can respect people's rights to different beliefs.

Regardless of religious beliefs, the debate about the rights of sexual minorities in our society, the debate about gay marriage, has no place in the hands of politicians.

President Bush said, "America is a free society, which limits the role of government in the lives of our citizens. This commitment of freedom, however, does not require the redefinition of one of our most basic social institutions. Our government should respect every person, and protect the institution of marriage.

"There is no contradiction between these responsibilities."

With all due respect, President Bush is wrong.

The Constitution has been amended 27 times, starting with the first 10 we know as the Bill of Rights. It has been amended to abolish slavery, to give African Americans full citizenship (rather than deeming them two-thirds of a person) and to grant voting rights to minorities and women.

Freedom does indeed require a redefinition of even a basic social institution that's what all of those amendments have been.

The proposed Bush amendment would be the first to deny rights to American citizens in the Constitution, right there after the Bill of Rights. It does not respect every person; it does not limit the role of government in citizens' rights; and it does not celebrate American freedom.

It is among the greatest contradictions to the basic foundation of our country that I have ever seen.

Jenni Dillon is a reporter for the Peninsula Clarion.

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