The Debate That Shouldn’t Be
They’re unnatural. They’re sinners. They’re going to hell. They’re corrupting our children. They’re getting too powerful. They’re actually unhappy and need counseling. And, for goodness sake, they are so very queer. I think I’ve heard them all - and that was only on CNN. Most importantly, however, this is all such a waste of time. With all the poverty and all the hunger in all the world, with all the terrorists here and abroad, with American soldiers dying in Iraq while their homes are foreclosed under a stumbling economy and their government runs a record budget deficit, I cannot believe that this is where the conservative establishment has chosen to draw the battle lines at this time. I have a simple message to my friends on the right: just give up already.
This week President George Bush and His Holiness Pope John Paul II both issued strong, unequivocal statements opposing gay marriages, with the latter going as far as instructing Catholic lawmakers (who, lest we forget, are elected by local constituencies and are sworn to uphold national constitutions) that to allow homosexual unions would be “gravely immoral.” To be sure, much of the raging debate is a reaction to Lawrence and Garner v. Texas, in which the Supreme Court held that a Texas sodomy law aimed at criminalizing homosexual conduct violated citizens’ due process rights as guaranteed by the Constitution, as well as the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision granting legal sanction to the notion of gay marriage in that country. While the popular trend on the issue of gay rights has in fact been one of increasing freedoms and acceptance, the landmark court decisions, which overruled democratically elected legislatures in the defense of individual liberties, clearly ruffled more than a few feathers. But it does lead us to what I hope everyone will, in the end, take away from this debate: sometimes your views, no matter how popular they are, simply do not matter. As a nation of laws, and not of men, each and every one of us is guaranteed to be treated just like everyone else, as long as we don’t harm anyone. The Bill of Rights, in fact, is just as much a protection against the ‘tyranny of the majority’ as it is against the institutions of government. Therefore, although Mr. Bush and his supporters are allowed to hold any view they wish on the subject of gay marriage, they simply have no standing to prevent it from taking place except via constitutional amendment; that is, they can change the rules of the game itself.
It is the talk of a constitutional amendment to explicitly ban the possibility of gay marriage that makes this issue very serious (don’t get me wrong, issues of discrimination are never to be taken lightly, but as I stated before under the current embodiment of the Constitution this shouldn’t even be a subject of debate). William Frist, the Republican leader in the U.S. Senate hand-picked by the Bush Administration, has proposed just such a measure and, though initially rebuffed by Mr. Bush, it is not at all a remote possibility. The Constitution is not just an important legal document, not just the supreme law of the land, it is also the highest incarnation of our ideals as a civil society. Why would we want our Constitution to be an instrument keeping two loving people unbound in the eyes of the law? The answer invariably rests on issues of individual morality and religious doctrine: it’s God who says that marriage should be only between a man and woman.
I personally have two serious problems with this position. First, as a religious person, I am deeply offended at the thought that such an inspirational part of my life could be hijacked for such a destructive, mean-spirited purpose. As a practising Hindu, a religion that represents nearly one-sixth of humanity, I can humbly assert that God couldn’t care less about the gender of one’s spouse, only that the union is one founded in love and leads to the betterment of both souls. It would be a crime if someone else’s views on spirituality, codified in the Constitution, were allowed to trump my (or anyone else’s) very personally held religious mores. Second, by such a justification for constitutional amendment we would significantly erode one of the great cornerstones of American democracy: the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. The proposed constitutional ban would basically equate the religious marriage ceremony with the civil institution of marriage when there is really no need, nor any logical basis, to do so. Instead, we should follow the advice of writer and Christian scholar C.S. Lewis, who wrote, “There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the state with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members.” Just as a gay couple has no right to ask the government to force a Catholic priest to marry them, Christian world views should not be imposed on the civic facets of marriage.
In the end, I am not overly concerned about the future of gay marriage. The last time a Constitutional Amendment passed curbing freedoms (the Eighteenth, marking the beginning of Prohibition), it was later dismissed as a signature failure in public policy. Let’s not forget that the forces that today’s civil rights activists are fighting against are the same ones that opposed the revolution against the British Crown, that opposed the abolition of slavery, that opposed the enfranchisement of women, and that opposed the movement of Martin Luther King, Jr. They lost each and every one of those battles, and they’re going to lose this one as well. So, my misguided friends, why not just give up now?
Shankar Mukherji ‘04 is co-president of the MIT chapter of Amnesty International.