Policy Debate: You Decide


A Federal Marriage Amendment?

The idea that all Americans are entitled to equal treatment is today a widely accepted principle. More controversial, however, is the matter of how that principle ought to apply to homosexuals. Most Americans embrace a live-and-let-live philosophy regarding homosexuality; at the same time, however, many Americans are uneasy with some highly publicized efforts to extend civil rights for gays. Central to this debate has been the question of whether the government should sanction gay marriage. Some conservatives have proposed amending the Constitution to define marriage as a union of one man and one woman.

Complicating this debate is the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution (Article IV, Section 1), which says that all states must honor the public acts of any other state, including marriage licenses. Thus, if gay marriage is recognized in even one state, other states are obliged to recognize its legality, too. In 1996, Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which provided that no state was required to recognize a same-sex marriage performed in another state. As of 2012, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Iowa, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, Washington, Maryland, Maine, and the District of Columbia issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. Some states recognize these marriages, while other states have passed legislation or amendments to their state constitutions to explicitly define marriage as between one man and one woman. As a result, a constitutional test of the Defense of Marriage Act could come before the Supreme Court.

Supporters of gay marriage point out that homosexuality is neither a fad nor a choice, but involuntarily engrained in a person’s nature. Given this, loving relationships are inevitable, and it is a denial of equality to discriminate against gays because they seek the same bond of marriage as heterosexuals. Civil marriage for gays would amount to formal public recognition of a homosexual union, making it in principle the same as a heterosexual marriage. Such recognition would actually encourage traditional values of fidelity and stability among homosexuals. It would also ease financial, insurance, and other problems, because gay partners could receive health and/or life insurance and pension benefits, and it would clarify such matters as inheritance, property, and adoption rights. Some localities have extended such rights through domestic-partnership laws, but these enactments are relatively uncommon and vary in their applicability.

Opponents of gay marriage argue that marriage, as it is traditionally defined by law and religion, does and ought to apply only to heterosexual unions. If state governments officially sanctioned gay marriage, they would, in effect, be endorsing a lifestyle that society simply does not equate with heterosexual marriage. Some opponents of gay marriage support a constitutional amendment that would prevent the states from allowing same-sex marriage. Law reflects society’s moral values, and those values do not countenance gay unions. Furthermore, a traditional purpose of marriage is the creation of children, and that cannot occur within the confines of a gay marriage (without the intervention of a third person). Many gay couples would seek to adopt children, but not enough research exists to demonstrate wheth­er children would be harmed by such a situation.

There is also discussion of an alternative option in this debate. As of 2012, Hawaii, Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, and Rhode Island recognize civil unions between same-sex couples. This is not officially a “marriage” but does provide spousal support rights and legal recognition. In addition, there is a growing libertarian wing of the Republican Party that opposes any government involvement in marriage at all. They argue that government involvement in marriage violates the principle of separation of church and state, so they feel that marriage should not be recognized by any official government body.

The issue of same-sex marriage has posed difficulties for all politicians. Democrats want to please their liberal core constituencies, which favor gay marriage, but are reluctant to alienate moderate voters. At the same time, Republicans need to please their conservative core constituents, who oppose gay marriage, without alienating moderate voters. Former president George W. Bush declared his opposition to gay marriage and his support for the proposed constitutional amendment that would define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. During the 2012 presidential campaign, President Barack Obama said he supported the idea that same-sex partners should be entitled to all the legal rights and privileges of heterosexual married partners. Governor Mitt Romney said he opposed gay marriage but that he does not believe in discriminating in employment or other opportunities for gay individuals.

Rules governing marriage have traditionally been the province of the states, but the proposed constitutional amendment would remove that right from the states. Should marriage become a federal matter? Why or why not?
Why has gay marriage become an important political issue? What are the positions of your senators and congressional representatives on the topic? Perhaps their websites or calls to their offices can provide the answer.
The Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia (1967) resulted in the striking down of state laws that prohibited whites and African Americans from marrying. Mildred Loving, one of the parties in the case, issued a statement on the fortieth anniversary of her case in which she urged that same-sex couples be allowed to marry. Are the two issues—laws prohibiting interracial marriage and laws prohibiting same-sex marriage—similar? Why or why not?

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