The recent colorful tirade by Minnesota Vikings punter Chris Kluwe against a legislator who demanded the Baltimore Ravens owner fire linebacker Brendon Ayanbadejo for supporting gay marriage and the overwhelmingly positive response to it by football fans and players alike are heartwarming developments. It shows how far we've come. But the fact that voters in four states -- Maryland, Maine, Minnesota, Washington -- will have an opportunity this November to ban same sex marriage and voters in 31 states have already approved constitutional amendments to that effect, usually by wide margins, shows how far we have to go.
The path from prejudice to understanding and acceptance has been much smoother in other countries. Eight European countries have legalized same-sex marriage, including predominantly Catholic countries like Portugal and Spain. In Europe this is not a left-right issue. The new Socialist-led government in France promises to legalize same-sex marriage next year. The Conservative-led government in Britain will introduce similar legislation.
On this continent, in 2000 the Canadian Parliament, by a wide margin, banned same-sex marriage. Five years later, after a series of court decisions overturned bans on same-sex marriage in several Canadian provinces, the nation's legislators revisited the issue, reversed themselves and legalized same-sex marriage.
In this country, by contrast, whenever state courts have overturned a ban on same sex marriage as a violation of state constitutions, Americans often have reacted by changing state constitutions or enacting federal laws that devalue same sex marriage in those states that do legalize it. In 1996, for example, after a Hawaiian court concluded that denying same-sex couples the right to marry violated the equal rights provision of its constitution, Congress quickly passed the Defense of Marriage Act denying federal benefits to same-sex couples even if they are legally married under state law. And Hawaiians promptly changed their constitution to allow their legislature to ban gay marriages, which it just as promptly did.
As I was doing research for my recently published book, The Thoughtful Voter's Guide to Same Sex Marriage: A Tool for the Decided, the Undecided and the Genuinely Perplexed, I was struck by how many times we've addressed and changed the institution of marriage. We've upgraded the status of wives (originally subordinate to their husbands in the eyes of the law), enabled no-fault divorce (initially a spouse had to prove adultery), permitted family planning (initially in many states the sale of contraceptives was illegal), and overturned bans on interracial marriage.
I was also reminded of how often scripture was used to justify opposition to change. Believe that wives must be subservient? Cite Genesis 2:24. Oppose allowing divorce simply when both parties want one? Cite Matthew 19:3-9. Oppose contraception? Cite Genesis 1:28. Oppose interracial marriage? Cite Acts 17:24-26.
Opponents of same-sex marriage argue they are defending the institution of marriage but their arguments have little to do with marriage. After all, the institution of marriage has suffered grievously in the only-heterosexuals-can-marry era. The percentage of households comprised of married couples plunged from 78 percent in 1950 to just 48 percent in 2010. Meanwhile the 2010 Census reported about 600,000 same sex households in this country. Allowing those among them who want to abandon cohabitation and choose marriage to do so can only strengthen the institution of marriage.
Nor does the argument opponents make that they are defending the psyche and safety of children have anything to do with marriage. Same-sex couples already parent 115,000 children and study after study after study finds them at least as well-adjusted as children of heterosexual couples. In 2008 a Florida Circuit Court judge, after taking voluminous testimony from both sides on whether to overturn that state's ban on adoption by same-sex couples flatly concluded, "... based on the robust nature of the evidence available in the field, this Court is satisfied that the issue is so far beyond dispute that it would be irrational to hold otherwise; the best interests of children are not preserved by prohibiting homosexual adoption." Indeed, as psychologist Abbie Goldberg points out, the fact that gays and lesbians do not become parents by accident, compared to almost 50 percent accidental pregnancy rates among heterosexuals "translates to greater commitment on average and more involvement." And allowing same sex couples with children to marry can only benefit the child.
No, the arguments against same-sex marriage are not about marriage; they're about homosexuality. We should remember that only a generation ago an admission of homosexuality could not only get one fired but arrested. In 1970 the IRS rejected the application of The Pride Foundation for a nonprofit tax exemption by declaring the organization's goal of "advanc(ing) the welfare of the homosexual community" to be "perverted or deviate behavior... contrary to public policy and therefore not 'charitable.'"
We've come a long way since then, but the road has been bumpy and we have yet to arrive at our destination. In a cover story, Entertainment Weekly noted that just 15 years ago when Ellen DeGeneres came out of the closet the story became the cover of TIME magazine, a major story on Oprah and the subject of an editorial in The New York Times. Today, TV and movie actors come out with little publicity: "What was impossible 60 years ago and dangerous 40 years ago and difficult 20 years ago is now becoming no big deal."
Nevertheless, prejudice against homosexuals is still widespread. In 34 states it is still legal for lesbian and gay employees to be fired simply because their employers disapprove of their sexual orientation. And the vitriol of opponents of same-sex marriage, especially among the clergy, has lent legitimacy to that prejudice. The FBI reports a significant increase in hate crimes directed at gays and lesbians.
In several states the Catholic Church is leading the fight against legal recognition of same-sex couples. In Minnesota virtually all funding for the opposition to same-sex marriage has come from the Catholic Church. Earlier this year the Archbishop of Saint Paul and Minneapolis declared the banning of same-sex marriage one of the most important ambitions of the Church and made clear he would brook no dissent on this issue from any member of the clergy. He then ordered priests to sermonize on the sins of same-sex marriage and say a prayer for its prohibition every Sunday and began sending teams to high schools to tutor seniors on the definition of marriage.
The Archbishop has had trouble finding scriptural justification for his frenetic campaign. In a letter to the clergy early this year he offered two pieces of biblical evidence to support his crusade. A passage in Genesis that says Adam was lonely so God made Eve and they, the only two people on earth, had sex (even though they weren't married.) And a passage from Matthew that contains Jesus' opposition to divorce and has nothing to do with homosexuality, which Jesus never condemns) nor same sex marriage.
The Catholic Church, regrettably, doesn't point to the part of the New Testament that conveys the essence of the values that Jesus hoped would be the foundation of Christianity. Matthew relates the story of a Pharisee asking Jesus, "Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" His answer is both instructive and revealing as to which side of the debate He might take. "Jesus replied: 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (22:36-40)
I suspect that for Jesus what is important is not a family structure based on biology or even heterosexual relationships but the quality of love exhibited in relationships. Unfortunately, those who oppose the right of loving, committed individuals to become married often seem driven more by hate than love.
In 2010, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the constitutional amendment approved by the voters that banned same-sex marriage violated the U.S. Constitution. After taking weeks of testimony from both sides he concluded:
The considered views and opinions of even the most highly qualified scholars and experts seldom outweigh the determinations of the voters. When challenged, however, the voters' determinations must find at least some support in evidence... Conjecture, speculation and fears are not enough. Still less will the moral disapprobation of a group or class of citizens suffice, no matter how large the majority that shares that view. The evidence demonstrated beyond serious reckoning that Proposition 8 finds support only in such disapproval.
To date no ballot initiative to ban same-sex marriage has been defeated. We will see in November whether that string continues or whether we will be able to say we have turned a corner and are willing to join the increasing part of the rest of the western world that accepts the diversity of the human condition and truly honors the precept, "Love your neighbor as yourself."