Monday, April 27, 2009

News from the Heartland of America

The New York Times has a report today (Gay Couples Line Up to Marry in Iowa) about the implementation of the court-ordered approval of same-sex marriages in the state of Iowa. Iowa joins the states of Connecticut and Massachusetts among those who allow such unions to be called "marriages"; and this group will be joined by Vermont in September of this year. There, the legislature passed a measure to legalize same-sex unions as marriages; and then overrode, by one vote, the governor's veto of that bill. In a related report (via a link in the news articles cited above), the states of New York, New Jersey, Maine and New Hampshire are all states where legislative efforts to change the law to extend marriage beyond the traditional understanding of "one man, one woman" have gained support -- read, gained votes -- in recent action. California, for a time, also allowed the legal recognition of same-sex unions as "marriages" under the law, until the voters there approved an amendment to the state Constitution providing otherwise. Arizona was one of a number of states in which a similar amendment to the state constitution was approved by the voters.

During the election campaign, the discussion of this particular measure (Proposition 102) was lengthy and, at times, heated. This discussion, by the way, took place in a group about baseball! My family and parishioners know that I am an avid follower of baseball, and especially our home team, the Arizona Diamondbacks. (You can join the conversation by clicking the link and becoming a member.) I mention this primarily to say that what I am about to say here is substantially the same as what I had to say there and then. What brings all this back is the change in Iowa. As one radio reporter said, "If it can happen in Iowa, it can happen anywhere."

There is no reason that I can find to suggest the slightest possibility that the reporter is wrong. I don't think anyone was terribly surprised when Connecticut and Massachusetts redefined marriage to include same-sex unions. In the same way, I don't think anyone is terribly surprised to find that the proposal is gaining support in New York, New Jersey, or New Hampshire -- notably progressive states (maybe it has something to do with the "New?"). Maine might be a surprise; but Maine is also more likely to be among the progressive states, than, say, Idaho or Arizona. I'm not sure what the status is at the present time in Hawaii; but it was there that same-sex unions were first recognized, however briefly, as marriages. Wouldn't want Hawaii to be left out! Also, it seems clear from the report that the effort in these states in the northeast corner of the country will recognize same-sex unions as marriages by way of an act of the legislature, following Vermont in doing so. This is not at all what happened in Iowa, where a court has imposed this decision, as in Massachusetts; and where the legislature failed to act, again paralleling, to a degree, what happened in Massachusetts.

From the point of view of a citizen, and as someone who has worked in state government, and who has taught history and politics, I can say that I would rather that the court did not impose such a decision in opposition to the will of the people -- or, at least, a majority thereof -- even as I concede that one of the reasons for having a judiciary with the power to act is to prevent the minority from being the victims of the oppression of the majority. There is also no reason whatsoever that I can find in law to require government to accept the Christian definition of marriage. That the state has done so until now is more a reflection upon the view prevailing among the voters who choose their elected officials to represent them, than anything inherent in the governmental charter of our land. It is theoretically within the power of the state to define marriage, and to extend the benefits, privileges and responsibilities conveyed by a state's recognition of marriage, in any way it chooses. Whether that definition is "one man, one woman," "two men," or "two women" is immaterial in this perspective. I cannot help but point out that there is also no reason for the state to stop at two. Is that some sort of marriage "magic number?" Why not allow polygamy? Why not allow polyandry? Why not allow "group marriages?" After all, the arguments being advanced today in favor of the approval and acceptance of homosexual marriages can, with a few minor changes in terminology, be used almost word-for-word in favor of these other "alternative lifestyles."

There's an interesting dynamic at work in Iowa, according to the report in the Times:
Civil magistrates can also choose not to marry same-sex couples, but they will then be barred from marrying any couples, legal experts said. At least one magistrate announced last week that he no longer intended to perform marriages.
I don't recall where I read it, but someone suggested that the state simply "get out" of the issuance of licenses of marriage. In a way, Iowa has taken the first "baby steps" in that direction by changing the registration form to identify the persons to be united as "Partner A" and "Partner B"; and allowing them to designate who is the bride, who is the groom, or who will simply be known as, "spouse." Let the state do what it needs to do to protect the public safety and to maintain order: do its "due diligence" to ensure that the persons seeking to enter into the union that the state is going to sanction are eligible to do so; and to provide for the orderly and just distribution of the assets, liabilities, and any "subsidiary corporations" (i.e., children) that may result from the merger of Partner A and Partner B in the event of the death of a partner, or at such time that the merger is dissolved by legal action (i.e., by divorce).

By leaving marriage exclusively to the church, and by defining whatever the state thinks as suitable for unions under a different name, the major concern that I have -- that the power of the state may be brought to bear upon the faith community to compel the acceptance of what is not acceptable from our point of view, or to exact punishment for failure to comply -- is minimized, if not eliminated. I don't think that's likely to happen; but time will tell. It also introduces a problem for those of us who will only see marriage as between one man and one woman when others, especially children, ask why the "rule" is one way for the Church, and another way in the world. So far, we haven't really had to have an answer for them. It's time we start preparing one; as well as beginning to prepare for the day when the issue is no longer in Massachusetts or Vermont of California or Oregon, but right here at our front door.