The Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) states that “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.” Even though it sounds harmless, it is intended to appeal to religious political extremists and their followers. It will, in effect, write discrimination into the U.S. Constitution against a specific class of people and consequently turn our constitution into a divisive and controversial document. Fortunately, the FMA has already failed to pass in the Senate, but Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrove of Colorado will sponsor it again this month (September) in the House.
We must preserve the spirit and intent of the U.S. Constitution. Wanting to avoid the religious wars and persecutions of Europe and the Middle East, the Founding Fathers carefully crafted their document as to best provide justice, unity, and order and to exclude religious beliefs. Knowing they themselves were capable of error and that circumstance and convention change over time , they provided a method to add to it or correct it. With one exception, it has only been amended in order to correct unforeseen flaws or to grant rights that were originally excluded.
The Eighteenth Amendment, the exception, was intended to make some people’s moral beliefs part of the law of the land. Popularly known as the Prohibition Amendment, it denied the right to manufacture, sell, or transport intoxicating liquors. It had the effect of turning many consumers into outlaws and making Al Capone and his bootleg competitors into heroes of the people. Huge public demand resulted in illegal suppliers, illegal bars known as speakeasies, and to violence among the bootleggers. It took fourteen years to recognize its failure and to pass the Twenty-first Amendment to get rid of it.
The FMA is also intended to make some people’s moral beliefs part of the law of the land. It will prevent same-sex couples from receiving official marriage certificates. Its unfairness will undoubtedly lead to non-violent protests at first, but, when that fails, it is possible that things could turn nasty. If added to the U.S. Constitution, it will reverse over two hundred years of U.S. history. Amendments 1-10, 13, 14, 15, 19, 24, and 26 were all passed to insure or provide rights. This is the direction we should continue.
Since most traditions do change, we should be very careful before we encode them into our form of government. The traditions of slavery and the inferior status of women immediately come to mind. What seems normal to many at one point may seem unnatural to most at another time and vice versa. Is the tradition of marriage being between one man and one woman going to come to an end even if some gays do get married? Are churches, which are separate from the government, going to stop performing weddings to one man and one woman just because civil officials and even some churches may be conducting same-sex ceremonies? If heterosexual marriages are not going to be harmed by the legalization of same-sex marriages, then what is the need for an amendment to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry someone they love? Let us not panic over a number of homosexual weddings in Massachusetts and amend our form of government in a fit of pique.
An argument that is frequently used to support the anti-gay FMA is that marriage between one man and one woman is the foundation of civilization, and it must be preserved exactly that way. Historically speaking, the foundations of civilization consist of permanent settlements; surplus crops; irrigation; specialized services; leisure time; religion; social classes; and a network of authority sustained by roads, bridges, and messages. Marriage is actually a sub-category of a few of the preceding. Marriage has historically been between a man and as many wives or concubines as he could afford. The Mormons in the U.S. practiced this until they had to give it up, at least officially, when it was the only way they could get Utah accepted into the Union. Different religions and governments have modified marriage over the years. We all know of the six wives of Henry VIII of England. He did have only one at a time, but he had to break away from the Catholic Church and form the Church of England (the Episcopal Church in the U.S.) in order to divorce his first wife. Marriage is a characteristic of civilization, not the foundation of it.
The U.S. Constitution should continue to evolve in ways that will insure that all Americans benefit from Thomas Jefferson’s vision of the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” It should not be changed unnecessarily to inflict the religious political extremists’ concepts of morality or religious beliefs on others who may not share those beliefs or who may be more open to diversity. Hopefully enough House members will rise to the occasion and vote against this divisive and discriminatory amendment. Voters should encourage their representatives to lead in the effort to prevent our constitution, which should unite us all, from being misused against any minority population in our country.
by David Offutt
A version of this essay was published September 9, 2004,
in the El Dorado News-Times as a letter to the editor.