Guardians of marriage stand on shaky ground

March 08, 2004|By Cynthia Tucker

ATLANTA - In January, Georgia state Sen. Bill Stephens started the latest skirmish in the local culture wars by proposing an amendment to the Georgia Constitution banning gay marriage.

"For thousands of years, the institution of marriage has been between a man and a woman," Mr. Stephens said. "It begins to tear at the foundations of our institutions if it's anything other than that."

Like so many opponents of same-sex marriage, Mr. Stephens claims that he wants to protect the traditional institution from further assault. His fellow Republican state senator, Joseph B. Brush, takes the same tack.

Mr. Brush wrote the following to a constituent, according to an Atlanta alternative news weekly: "Our society is slipping on a downward slope of morality. Some would say that because traditional marriages are failing at a greater rate that the concept is not worth saving. I believe that the obvious effect of those failures on our children only makes it more obvious that traditional marriage is more important for our children."

Both Mr. Stephens and Mr. Brush know something about the vulnerabilities of traditional marriage: Mr. Stephens has been divorced, and Mr. Brush is separated from his wife.

But when Mr. Stephens and Mr. Brush looked around for the cause of the decline in traditional marriage, they conveniently overlooked themselves. Like thrice-married former Georgia congressman Bob Barr - who sponsored the gay-bashing Defense of Marriage Act, which allows states to reject same-sex marriages performed in other states - Mr. Stephens and Mr. Brush searched for a scapegoat and found gays.

Their logic, such as it is, amounts to this: Traditional marriage will collapse if gays are allowed to join the institution. Of all the nonsense peddled by opponents of gay marriage, this is, by far, the dumbest. If same-sex unions harm traditional marriage, wouldn't the divorce rate be higher in Vermont, which has approved civil unions? In fact, the divorce rate in Vermont is the same as the national average. The divorce rate in Massachusetts - whose Supreme Judicial Court has provoked such a stir by approving same-sex marriage - is lower than the national average.

(Mr. Stephens is also wrong on the history of marriage. For thousands of years, marriage was between a man and as many women as he could afford.)

Some conservatives have been candid enough to make a forthright religious argument against same-sex unions. In a recent column in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, freelance writer Shaunti Feldhahn wrote that traditional marriage is "a moral absolute" that should be vigorously defended. "If morality is removed from the equation, yes, the case against gay civil marriage crumbles," she wrote.

While I disagree with Ms. Feldhahn's point of view, I respect her honesty. She has made her case; now we can have a legitimate debate about whether the U.S. Constitution - or the constitution of any state - should enshrine the views of any sect or religion. Her religious views, after all, are different from mine.

Perhaps that's the reason Mr. Stephens and Mr. Brush chose to hide behind the hypocrisy of "protecting" traditional marriage: They know a religious argument won't meet a constitutional test. However, their claims are too ludicrous to be taken seriously. If they really wanted to "protect" marriage, why not a constitutional amendment banning divorce?

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

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