Advocacy News - U.S. Update: full & equal marriage rights
April 10, 2005
update: full & equal marriage rights
I am privileged to have been invited to write a personalized, American perspective on this subject for Equal Marriage for Same-Sex Couples, hosted by Kevin Bourassa and Joe Varnell.
Will we, GLBTQI Americans, ever see full and equal civil marriage rights? It depends on whom you listen to, of course, but I so strongly believe we will that I consider it inevitable, a foregone conclusion. But I don't put a timeline on it and the path to achieving full marriage equality is anything but clear and hazard-free.
I think our biggest obstacle, not unlike in Canada, is organized religion. We are all too familiar with the prophesies of the late pope, John Paul II and his minions, so I won't repeat them here. The vitriol being spewed is certainly not limited to Catholicism, or even Christianity. We find our people being defined as America's 'new minority', as if we are just now coming into existence, and we are the easy scapegoats for everything that is wrong in our culture, especially as it relates to 'traditional families' and their 'values'. We share this position with our sisters and brothers around the globe.
In the United States we make the specious claim of separation of church and state. It is obvious to all and applauded by too many that public officials base some of their public policy decisions on their religious beliefs. Public policy is supposed to be for the benefit of all, and it should not be based on religious doctrine or dogma. Challenges to civil liberties and human rights from religious organizations are as old as organized religion itself, but since the inauguration of George W. Bush, the caving in to religious belief, especially conservative Christian doctrine, has been stunning. Tax dollars now favor faith-based organizations, clearly a violation of our American tradition of the First Amendment separation clause. The Bush policy of building an economy built on war, destruction and death seems an extreme contradiction to what the Bible purportedly teaches.
I will assume that religious-based arguments about civil marriage are all too familiar to most readers of this article, so I will leave those sophistical debates for another day. Outside the realm of sacred vs. secular marriage what I find profoundly disturbing is the effect that 'gay marriage' - I much prefer the term 'marriage equality' - is having on our form of government. Our whole system of government seems to be under attack, with marriage equality positioned as the springboard of right wing hegemony.
In 2004 eleven of the thirteen states that amended their constitutions to limit the right to marry between one man and one women (rarely, if ever, between one woman and one man, and in no case until death do them part) did so on the same day that George W. Bush finally got elected to the presidency. This spectacular show of bigotry reinvigorated the opponents of marriage equality. Legislatures in other states, particularly in the South, have since jumped on the bandwagon and used their own state's legal system to install a system of class privilege for citizens who fit their definition of which citizens are allowed to have which rights. In early April 2005 Kansas became the 18th state to change their constitution to deny rather than extend a particular right to a particular class of people. There is little doubt that other states will soon follow.
On the other side of the coin we have states that are progressing towards marriage equality. Massachusetts is the only state that grants full and equal state level marriage to same-sex couples, while Vermont has civil unions and California has a fairly comprehensive domestic partner registry. Connecticut is about to pass a civil unions bill, and if that happens they will be the first to do so without being ordered by a court.
Here in the state of Washington we await a decision by our State Supreme Court on the issue of marriage equality. We in the GLBTQI community are very hopeful, because of our progressive state constitution, that we will get a favorable decision. If that happens Washington will be the first state in the Union where same-sex couples can come from anywhere on the planet to get married. Unlike Massachusetts, we have no archaic laws prohibiting people from out of state from coming here to get married.
Assuming we get a favorable Supreme Court decision the bigger questions will be, when? and, what happens after that? Our state constitution is much more difficult to amend than those of other states. The first requirement is that two-thirds of both houses of our legislature have to approve a constitutional amendment to be sent to the people for a majority vote. That dual two thirds vote is our greatest hope. Most of us in the GLBTQI activist community feel that as long as we have a Democratic majority in at least one house of the legislature, we are safe. However, that is now coming into question as we experience a Democratic majority in both houses that after 28 years of pushing a gay civil rights bill, is still unable to get it to the governor's desk.
If we win marriage equality by court order, the pressure on the Democrats to send an amendment to the ballot will be close to if not unprecedented. As for the Republicans, with some exceptions, they are basically against anything that advances the equality of GLBTQI people.
It has been a long row to hoe, and the end isn't in sight. Even if Washington becomes the second state to give us full marriage equality, there is the ongoing threat of a federal constitutional amendment. That would set us back for a generation or more. Only once has the US Constitution been amended to limit people's rights. That was Prohibition, and it took over a decade to repeal that. If the US Constitution is amended to prohibit marriage equality my personal view is that we won't see it repealed in my lifetime (for a perspective on that point, I'm 57 years old.)
The other threat is civil unions. Although this status gives same-sex couples many of the rights and benefits of marriage - rights and benefits that are sorely needed - it still represents second-class citizenship. The bigger danger is that civil unions could become acceptable, even expected, by a majority of both the straight and gay population, instead of the fall back position of the right. I hope wherever they are imposed that they are just an incremental step toward full and equal marriage, but I have my misgivings.
At this writing Canada is on the verge of an historic vote for nationwide marriage equality. We in the states are watching that very closely. Of course we want a favorable outcome. Of course we are a nervous as you are about it. Our concern is somewhat self-serving. If Canada can do it and the sky doesn't fall (it won't), then that weakens the argument that extending marriage rights in the States is the death knell of marriage.
We have come a long way and have a long way to go. Canada has been an inspiration to all of us in the United States. I have no plans of giving up the battle until we reach our goal. There are plenty of minefields to cross, but my faith doesn't waiver. I am totally convinced that we are going to make it. There will be bumps in the road, detours and setbacks, but we are going to make it. And when we do we can move on to correct other injustices in the world.