Constitutional amendment won't save marriage

February 23, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA -- Like many other states, Georgia is in a dire budget crunch -- cutting money for health care for the poor, parks, college professors and state troopers. Though the state longs to get its schoolchildren out of the academic cellar, it is cutting funds that would shrink the size of classes and improve the climate for learning.

So what is so critical that it dominates debate at the legislature this session instead? The issue that has consumed contentious hours of talk and testimony is gay marriage -- or, rather, "protecting" traditional marriage from same-sex unions.

After public hearings that drew crowds of religious conservatives as well as gay activists, the Georgia Senate passed a bill calling for a state constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage. (Georgia law already prohibits recognition of same-sex unions.) It awaits consideration in the Georgia House.

I admit that I'm puzzled by the intense focus on the prospect of gay marriage -- not just in Georgia but also in the White House, with President Bush threatening to throw his support behind a ban on same-sex marriage in the U.S. Constitution. The president, like the Georgia Legislature, would seem to have more pressing concerns: The federal budget is awash in red ink; Iraq is mired in turmoil; the vaunted economic "recovery" has left millions of Americans jobless. Mr. Bush believes a priority should be throwing obstacles in the way of gay unions?

What is it about the prospect of allowing same-sex couples the right to pledge fidelity, loyalty and love to each other -- as heterosexuals do -- that threatens the foundations of the republic?

For many religious conservatives, the issue is simple enough: Leviticus condemns homosexuality as an "abomination." But the guiding legal document of a pluralistic nation has no business recognizing one religious view over any other. Some denominations -- including my own, the United Church of Christ -- have no prohibition against same-sex marriages.

(A literal reading of the Bible, by the way, poses many a conundrum. Leviticus also orders capital punishment for homosexuals and adulterers.)

Many Americans view marriage only as an institution ordained by religion, but it is also recognized by civil authorities. While no church could ever be ordered to recognize or perform same-sex marriages, the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees full equality to all, should not block a courthouse marriage between two consenting adults.

But religion is just one consideration. Tradition is another. Even among many Americans who would not identify themselves as religious conservatives, there is a vague and unsettling fear of undermining the modern conception of marriage as a commitment between a man and a woman, especially when the institution is already in decline throughout the industrialized West.

The loosening of marriage bonds has taken place against a backdrop of rapid cultural and technological shifts; it has also struck every racial, demographic and religious segment of the population. Even among those who characterize themselves as born-again Christians, the rate of divorce is high, according to a 2001 survey by the Barna Research Group Ltd.

I understand the fears over the decline of marriage. Most psychologists agree that stable marriages are the best arrangement for children, and children reared in single-parent homes are more likely to suffer poor educational achievement and to be lured into drugs, early parenthood and crime.

But isn't that all the more reason to welcome gay marriage? At a time when marriage is rapidly losing its allure for so many heterosexuals, one of the most promising developments is the deep desire of so many gays to commit themselves to marriage, with all its rewards and sacrifices.

Gays and lesbians deserve the right to succeed -- or fail -- at marriage just like the rest of us. When it comes right down to it, a constitutional amendment won't save marriage. That can only be done by couples, regardless of gender, one marriage at a time.

Cynthia Tucker is editorial page editor for The Atlanta Constitution. Her column appears Mondays in The Sun.

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