Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Protecting Marriage: News “from the Trenches”

Missouri Voters Approve Gay Marriage Ban

Missouri, according to an AP news report, has joined four other states in amending its state’s constitution to limit marriage to being between a man and a woman. Nine, and as many as twelve, additional states have similar measures to amend state constitutions scheduled for a vote later this year. Missouri’s vote is the first since the controversial decision by the court in Massachusetts which required legal recognition in that state of same-sex marriages.

According to the article,

Missouri and 37 other states already have laws defining marriage as only between a man and a woman. But amendment supporters fear a court could toss aside the state law, and they believe the state would be on firmer legal ground if an outright ban is part of the Constitution.

To me, this is the significant paragraph in the news report. Thirty-eight states already have a law that limits marriage to being between a man and a woman. If I’m not mistaken, the federal government also has such a law: the Defense of Marriage Act, passed in 1996. This Act also provides that states which do not, in their state laws, recognize as “marriages” same-sex unions, are not required to recognize such “marriages”, even if legal in the state where these were performed. Not being an attorney or constitutional expert, I have to wonder whether an amendment to a state constitution has any more power than a state statute, if a federal court rules that such a regulation is unconstitutional with regard to the Constitution of the Untied States – to which all state constitutions must conform.

If, for example, a state constitution could provide some sort of exemption from – or, at least, greater latitude within – the requirements of the federal Constitution, we could amend a state constitution to outlaw abortion. But this isn’t so. And if we cannot use a state constitution to regulate abortion, why makes anyone think we can achieve success by amending a state constitution to protect the definition of marriage? Only such an amendment to the U.S. Constitution, such as the proposed “Federal Marriage Amendment,” can provide the protection that is desired for the legal definition of marriage. (I’ve had a lot to say about this amendment in other postings; so I won’t say more here, except that I’m skeptical about this effort.)

Please don’t misunderstand me: I am not in favor of changing the legal definition of marriage. I believe that it is in the best interests of the state to preserve the definition of marriage as being the union of one man and one woman. I also believe that it is in the best interests of the people of God to be wary of using the power of the state. This is not to say that we are to be silent; there is no reason whatsoever to refrain from contacting your elected officials and informing them of the actions you think are appropriate and necessary. (If you are going to do so, do so in a way that will be effective – the best way being a brief, to-the-point, personal letter or telephone call.) But I cannot help but see any efforts that are directed to the ballot box, either directly (in the form of organizing campaigns designed to “get out the vote’) or indirectly (in the form of organizing campaigns designed to influence elected officials), as being the locus of our activities is a grave mistake.

Bear with me for a moment or two – I’m going to wander a bit, although I hope that, as it wraps up, you’ll see the connection. It’s been said that the attempt to redefine marriage to allow this definition to include same-sex unions is also an assault against the structure of the family. I would submit that this assault is far less significant than what has already taken place with the changes in the laws regarding divorce; and the shifts that have taken place in both society and in the churches of our society. As a young boy in the 1960’s, I remember one member of our neighborhood being treated with an otherwise uncharacteristic distance, because this person was divorced. From this, I was able to understand that divorce was both an undesirable action, and an unusual state. (I’m not advocating a return to stigmatizing persons, as was the case in that day.) Times have changed. This point was brought home to me rather forcefully when our oldest daughter, now 20, was in the sixth grade. Whenever there would be tension between my wife and myself, she would get very nervous, and would ask, “Are you going to get a divorce?” We would explain, over and over, that husbands and wives don’t always agree, and that, while disagreements happen, these can be resolved without divorce – until one day, it dawned on me why she wasn’t being comforted by our explanations. I asked, and found out that the vast majority of her classmates came from divorced families; and so had issues with step-parents, and schedules that had to include visitations with the non-custodial parent, and so on. The “divorced” situation had become the norm in that classroom; and being the child of parents who had been married at the time of her birth, and were still married 10-12 years later, was an unusual situation.

There was a time when it was difficult (or impossible) to be married for a second time in a church. This has also changed; so much so that there really isn’t even a mention of any problem arising from a failed marriage in the past. As an assistant in an Episcopal Church, I was assigned to perform the marriage of a couple who had each been previously married to, and subsequently divorced from, a partner other than the one they now desired to wed. Because I would be doing the wedding, I was also required to do the pre-marital counseling required by the diocese. After a few sessions, I approached the rector who had given me the assignment with my deep misgivings about performing the marriage. My objections were overridden, in part because there was no barrier in the canon laws of the Episcopal Church to performing the wedding. I would be very surprised to find that couple still married to each other today.

In the Orthodox Church, the situation is different. There is a profound difference between the marriage service for those joining together for the first time, and the service for marrying a person who has been divorced. The latter has a much more penitential, and less celebratory, tone. The canons of the Orthodox Church also limit the number of marriages to a maximum of three. (By contrast, there was, at one time, a bishop in the Episcopal Church who had been married five times; a situation those of us holding a more traditional view sometimes uncharitably referred to as “the practice of serial polygamy.”) We can only speculate how our society might be different today had the churches not adopted the practices of the secular world, and turned a blind eye to divorce.

To me, this is the point: as long as we do not live as the people of God, as long as we are indistinguishable from those who do not know God or His ways, we have no power to influence those around us, and lead them to a knowledge of God, and the ways He has established for us to live, and to receive His blessings. We must prepare ourselves to take a stand for what we believe, and do what God would have us do, no matter what the world, or the state, or our neighbors believe, and do. For what has changed, to produce these changes in society that brings us today to the threshold of the legalization by the state of same-sex unions as marriages? Not God. Not the way God has given us to live. So, we must face the unpleasant truth that we have failed to be who we are called to be – the people of God, living in the world, but not of the world.

There was a time when the laws and standards and practices of the state upheld and enforced the ways of God, not because the state was an agency of the church, but because the state, which is embodied to carry out the will of the people, was directed and supported by people who shared a common set of values with the teachings of the Christian faith. If the state no longer values or embodies such values, it is because, to no small degree, the people from whom the state derives no longer share these values – and that is a significant failure on our part, as those who would be known as the followers of Jesus Christ. Now, there’s no doubt that we have a problem today with activist judges; but this is only one part, and not the largest part, of the problem. Maybe what we need, instead of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution defining marriage, is a way to restrict the ability of a judge, or a small panel of judges, to force a state to accept what it has clearly chosen to reject – so that Massachusetts cannot be forced to accept as marriages same-sex unions by a simple decision of a court. To me, one virtue of this approach is that it would not be an attempt to legislate morality, but would rather be fixing a problem that has arisen in the constitutional process. (I’m not sure how it can be done; but give me a few minutes to think about it!) But even more, we need to return to being bearers of the image of Christ in the world, bringing the light of the Gospel with us by the quality of our lives into every place we go: our homes, our places of employment, where we shop, where we play; to the prisons, to the hospitals, to those in need; not getting in anyone’s face, not pushing our point of view; but being an influence for good, an influence for God – saving our souls, so that thousands around us may also be saved.