The institution of marriage has had a long and varied history over the years. This is partly due to the fact that as the years go by, we have come to newer understandings about human biology, psychology, and how gender and justice issues relate to that institution. It is partly due, also, to the fact that people marry for different reasons: social, libidinal, emotional, legal, financial, spiritual, and religious. All of these have had an impact on how we view that institution and how it has been molded by custom and law.
Through much of human history, women have been considered to be the property of men. Marriage often signified the transfer of this property from the woman’s father to the new husband. Even modern customs have carried on this symbolism of subordination: the bride takes on her husband’s last name, and in her wedding vows (still in some use today) she promises to love, honor, and obey him—a pledge that omits the “obey” when the bridegroom says it. Many Latin American countries have kept a more egalitarian custom for wives and husbands: keeping two last names, their father’s and their mother’s, for their entire lives.
The passage of time over the years has also provided a new perspective on the
Council of Trent’s Catechism of 1566 that defined marriage as “the conjugal union of man and woman,” thus making “procreation” the chief purpose of marriage. This, in turn, became the basis for the Roman Catholic opposition to the use of contraceptives. Today many people view intimate companionship and the mutual support of spouses as more important purposes of a marriage than just the bearing and rearing of children. This is especially true for senior citizens and younger spouses who may not wish to have children.
In our nation during the 17th century a number of former slave-holding states placed additional fences around marriage. They passed miscegenation laws forbidding the marriage of whites and blacks. These state laws against interracial marriage were finally overturned by the Supreme Court in its 1967 Loving vs. Virginia ruling.
In another Supreme Court case in 1986 Justice Harry Blackmun argued that “the legitimacy of secular legislation depends...on whether the state can advance some justification for its law beyond its conformity to religious doctrine.” Something more than traditional morals is needed to justify laws governing intimate relationships. In David Von Drehle’s words in the April 8 Time magazine, “This was a lever awaiting the right moment to pry open the door for same-sex marriage.”
This newest marriage controversy has become the hot button issue in our nation today, with national polls now showing majority support for same-sex marriage. On March 26 the Supreme Court heard arguments on the Proposition 8 case which seeks to overturn California’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. And on the next day, March 27, the Court heard a case seeking to overturn the federal Defense of Marriage Act which denies financial aid and other benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Such aid and benefit denial is considerable. In 2003 there were 1,138 provisions in federal laws that listed marital status as a factor in determining benefits, rights, and privileges. Gay and lesbian spouses can’t get tax-free health benefits from employers and can’t file joint federal tax returns which often save heterosexual couples thousands of dollars. When a spouse dies, the gay or lesbian survivor is liable for inheritance taxes; heterosexual couples enjoy a marital deduction. Such financial aid would greatly help support marital and family stability.
In the public discussion of this hot button issue, two kinds of questions have been raised. One has to do with whether homosexuality is an aspect of a person’s basic nature or is a choice. It is now a widely accepted fact that it is a natural part of a person’s makeup. The second question relates to the value and propriety of same-sex parenthood. It might be well to refer to a statement made by the American Academy of Pediatrics on March 21 that declared its support for same-sex marriage, saying that allowing gay and lesbian parents to marry if they so choose is in the best interests of their children.
The Academy cited research finding that a child’s well-being is much more affected by the strength of relationships among family members and a family’s social and economic resources than by the sexual orientation of the parents. Children raised by gay or lesbian parents fare as well in emotional, cognitive and social functioning as peers raised by heterosexuals.
We don’t know yet how the Supreme Court will come out on these two cases. The female justices seemed more interested in questions concerning equality and morality, but the male justices seemed more interested in matters of states’ rights and judicial standing.
Perhaps the most important development of all during the past month, however, took place on March 22 when Senator Rob Portman of Ohio became the only sitting Republican senator to change his mind and publicly support same-sex marriage. The reason? His 21-year-old-son, Will Portman, had just revealed to him that he was gay. The issue for Rob Portman was no longer an objective, theoretical, impersonal matter but now deeply personal, with a human face that was familiar. Instead of antagonism he felt empathy.
Maybe there is a message for us in all of this. In our way through this same-sex marriage controversy, if we can likewise empathize with the individuals and families who are at the heart of this issue, we, too, can join Rob Portman in the growing majority in our nation.
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This column is sponsored by Cumberland Countians for Peace and Justice and dedicated by the local writers to the theme that the lion and the lamb can and must learn to live together and grow in their relationship toward one another to ensure a better world. Opinions expressed in “Lion and the Lamb” columns are not necessarily those of the Crossville Chronicle publisher, editor or staff. For more information, contact Ted Braun, editor, at 277-5135.