President Bush's endorsement of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman may amount, in practical terms, to very little. At present, it seems unlikely that the amendment will ever get off the Senate floor. Whatever the outcome, the culture war over same-sex marriage is now in high gear.
Each side in this war claims that the other started it. Supporters of same-sex marriage accuse President Bush of declaring a war on gays and lesbians by seeking to change the Constitution to deny them a basic civil right. Opponents charge that it was gay activists who started the battle by seeking to change the traditional definition of marriage through activist courts and then through law-defying public officials. As it happens, each side has a point.
The Federal Marriage Amendment is an assault on the longstanding principle that civil marriage is a state matter. While some say the amendment would merely codify the status quo, that is not true: It would, for the first time, federalize marriage law for the express purpose of denying same-sex partners the right to marry. In that sense, claims that the amendment reflects antigay bias ring true.
Yet it is equally true that historically, marriage law has been made by legislatures, not by the courts. After the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled to uphold same-sex marriage last November, some legal commentators who favor marriage rights for gays warned that taking this contentious issue out of the democratic process was likely to backfire. That goes doubly for the decision of San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in defiance of a state law approved by a majority of California voters. Barney Frank, the openly gay Democratic congressman from Massachusetts, expressed concern that Mayor Newsom's civil disobedience could undermine the effort to achieve equal marriage rights by legal means.
Right now, Americans oppose legalizing same-sex marriage by a margin of approximately 2 to 1. While a majority also oppose a constitutional ban on gay marriage, opinion varies with the wording. The Annenberg Public Policy Center found that when people are asked if they would favor "an amendment to the US Constitution saying that no state can allow two men to marry each other or two women to marry each other," they oppose it by a small margin. When the question is, "Would you favor or oppose an amendment to the US Constitution that would allow marriage only between a man and a woman?" close to 60 percent support the amendment.
Some supporters of same-sex marriage now equate virtually all opposition with antigay bigotry. Yet most Americans also believe that gays and lesbians should be protected from discrimination in the workplace and in housing. Many oppose gay marriage but support civil union laws that grant gay couples all the legal rights of heterosexual married couples.
Why the opposition to marriage, then? Religious considerations aside, many people see sexual differentiation as essential to the concept of marriage. The belief that men and women are fundamentally different and complement each other in unique and valuable ways remains strong in our culture. However vehemently I may disagree with the notion that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, it cannot be equated with racial bigotry. As long as people believe that men and women are very different, they will also view same-sex unions differently from male-female ones.
Same-sex marriage is a radical break with tradition. While many civilizations have been fairly accepting of same-sex sexual relationships, none—until the recent legalization of gay marriage in several European countries—have granted them marital status. (By contrast, prohibitions on interracial marriage were far from universal.) That doesn't mean tradition shouldn't change: Equality for husbands and wives in marriage was radically nontraditional too. But such change cannot be imposed from above.
Equal legal protection for gay and straight couples is a matter of simple justice. But the marriage debate has largely shifted from legal rights to social and cultural symbolism.
For now, the rhetoric flies. On one side, we have the spectacle of former Republican House speaker Newt Gingrich, who is now on his third marriage and had a six-year affair while married to wife No. 2, talking about preserving "the traditional Judeo-Christian view of marriage." On the other side, the view that marriage is the union of a man and a woman is denounced as akin to hate speech.
To paraphrase Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest, war is hell, even when it's a culture war.