Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Religion, Reason, and Same-Sex Marriage

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

Religion, Reason, and Same-Sex Marriage

Article excerpt

In the contemporary debate on the future of marriage, there appears to be, amid many uncertainties, one sure thing. Those who publicly defend traditional marriage can count on being denounced as haters, bigots, or irrational theocrats - and perhaps all of these at once. So I learned after publishing an article in the Washington Post last December titled "On Gay Marriage, Stop Playing the Hate Card." I was not making a full-fledged argument against same-sex marriage - only urging Post readers to reject the use of reckless charges of "hate" to shut down debate, and asking them to respect the defenders of marriage as people in possession of an argument. Sadly, many readers leapt to the challenge of confirming my thesis, writing e-mails or commenting online that I must indeed be a hating, bigoted, irrational theocrat.

Lying behind this poisoning of our public discourse is some notably flawed reasoning that it is worth our while to consider in some detail.

In briefly rehearsing well-known defenses of conjugal marriage that others have elaborated elsewhere, I noted in the Post that marriage "has always existed in order to bring men and women together so that children will have mothers and fathers" and that same-sex unions are "not an expansion but a dismantling of the institution." The response of some readers was not merely that I had not fully fleshed out this argument (which I could readily admit) but that such statements did not even bear the marks of rationality - that they were so obviously wrong that only those in the grip of unreasoning hatred or bigotry could put them forward.

Some of our high public officials, unfortunately, have encouraged this kind of flattening and coarsening of our public discussion. Judge Joseph Tauro, of the federal district court in Boston, in ruling against the constitutionality of section 3 of the Defense of Marriage Act (which defines marriage as between one man and one woman for the purposes of federal law), said last July that the difference between samesex couples and opposite-sex couples is a "distinction without meaning." How he claimed to know this, since he did not explain it, is anyone's guess, but it was enough for him to conclude that Congress, in passing DOMA, had acted on an "animus" that "targets" people on the basis of a "sexual orientation" of which Congress "disapproves." But DOMA was passed by overwhelming majorities in both houses of Congress, and signed by a Democratic president, for the express purpose of defending the right of the people in each state to govern themselves on the question of marriage. It would never even have been proposed in Congress but for the existence of a movement determined to make an end-run around the institutions of democratic decision-making - determined, that is, to persuade judges like Joseph Tauro to bend the Constitution to suit the purposes of a political agenda. DOMA is just what its title says it is - a defense of marriage against assault by a court-centered strategy. Given the feebleness of his arguments, it's a fair question just what "animus" the judge himself has toward people who disagree with him.

In late February, Judge Tauro's view was essentially adopted by the Obama administration, which announced that the Justice Department would no longer defend the constitutionality of section 3 of DOMA but would instead take the opposite position in federal courts. It is perfectly legitimate for presidents to assert their independent judgment about the constitutionality of the laws that govern us. But what passed for judgment in the administration's analysis was shockingly thin. The most substantial point made in Attorney General Eric Holder's letter to House Speaker John Boehner was that, during the 1996 debate on DOMA, some members of Congress had expressed "moral disapproval of gays and lesbians and their intimate and family relationships - precisely the kind of stereotype-based thinking and animus the Equal Protection Clause is designed to guard against. …

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