Sunday, October 29, 2006

Wisconsin's Marriage Protection Amendment

Here in Wisconsin, we will be voting in nine days on an amendment to the state constitution. As you may have heard or might guess, the intent of this amendment is to ensure that gay marriage cannot be recognized here. In support of this amendment, a flyer was recently left at our front door, produced by an organization named Vote Yes for Marriage.

Before examining the flyer itself, let me first quote the statement that will be on the ballot regarding the proposed amendment:

Shall section 13 of article XIII of the constitution be created to provide that only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state and that a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state?

The front half of the flyer says this:

Don't be deceived by proponents of homosexual marriage

Wisconsin's Marriage Protection Amendment is not about benefits.

It's not about relationships.

Wisconsin's Marriage Protection Amendment is about preserving traditional marriage between ONE MAN and ONE WOMAN.

It is about making sure Wisconsin citizens determine the definition of marriage in our state, not a judge with an agenda.


Since the amendment was clearly written by opponents of homosexual marriage, it may very well be true that, in the sense of its purported purpose, it is not about benefits or relationships. They can assert that it is only about the definition of marriage. But there are several problems with these claims. First, the text of the amendment goes beyond establishing a definition by additionally forbidding any other comparable legal status among same-sex partners. If the amendment were only about the definition of a word, this additional clause would be unnecessary. Its presence is a clear indication that this amendment is not intended to be just a definition.

Second, benefits are an important consideration for those that support homosexual marriage. For proponents of homosexual marriage to address the issue of benefits, an issue clearly affected by the actual wording of the proposed amendment, they need not be deceptive. (Of course, they still could be, but that is not the implication here.) Proponents of same-sex marriages are addressing a very real and important implication of the wording of the amendment.

Third, at least one other state (Michigan) has passed a similar amendment where the proponents of the amendment, even the very authors of the amendment, have stated prior to its passage that benefits were not in question, only for those very same people to turn around and file lawsuits against the state for providing benefits to same-sex partners based on that very amendment once it passed. We cannot, of course, be sure of what will happen here, but when the wording of the amendment provides for exactly this kind of outcome, being distrustful of these claims is not unreasonable.

The front side of the flyer also includes the common claim that the amendment (and others like it) protect traditional marriage. But nobody has yet explained exactly how any existing heterosexual marriage will be negatively affected by the legal union of two homosexuals, not in any way that justifies discrimination against those homosexuals that wish to be married. In fact, Massachusetts has one of the lowest, if not the lowest divorce rate in the country, and in Scandinavian countries that have recognized same-sex unions for nearly twenty years, divorce rates have gone down during that time. While a causal connection between gay marriage and divorce rate (or other similar societal ill) has not been demonstrated, it is difficult to conclude that gay marriage has hurt so-called traditional marriage when only positive changes have occurred.

I do agree with one line though -- the last one. Don't buy the lies.

On the back side of the flyer are a number of bullet points intended to drive their point home.

  • Homosexual activists shouldn't get to redefine marriage because they want easier access to healthcare benefits. [emphasis original]

As should already be clear, the amendment is not merely about redefining marriage. The fact that some benefits available to married couples are also available to unmarried couples does not negate the fact that those benefits are automatic for married couples while they have to be separately established by unmarried couples, often at great cost. Additionally, there are benefits that are available only to married couples. In either case, whether simply more difficult or denied altogether, homosexual couples face discrimination under the law.

  • Changing the definition of marriage would intentionally create motherless or fatherless children. [emphasis original]

This is silly. Changing the definition of marriage creates no children at all. Neither does it change the status of any children that already exist. For those children of gay couples, merely changing or not changing the definition or marriage has no effect whatsoever. But these children could be affected by the benefits and protections that could be given to their parents. When I hear opponents of same-sex marriage claiming to be pro-family, I think instead that they are actually anti-family, because they are only willing to support some families, the ones that have a particular type of family. Likewise, when we are asked to "think of the children", I would respond that I am thinking of the children.

  • Wisconsin's current law does not clearly define husband as a man and wife as a woman. [emphasis original]

That may be true. I have not seen what the current law actually states, but the implication here is that the law states that marriage (in Wisconsin) is between a husband and a wife, not between a man and a woman. What legal effect this might have, I do not know. But this is only an argument for the amendment only if there are other grounds for denying the legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples; it is those other grounds that are lacking.

  • We are one lawsuite and one judicial vote away from becoming a Massachusetts, where same-sex marriage is legal. [emphasis original]

Again, this is not an argument against gay marriage itself. It merely plays on the prejudice of those that are against such marriages to begin with. (The whole "judicial activism" thing is too big to get into here, other than to say that it usually boils down to a description for judicial decisions that one disagrees with.)

  • Kentucky adopted the exact same language in 2004, and there have been no legal challenges based on benefits. [emphasis original]

The implication here is that if benefits were the real issue at stake, such lawsuits would have been brought. Since there have not (if that is indeed true), that must not be the real issue. Keep in mind, though, that what is being done here is to amend the constitution, the ultimate authority on issues of law. Once the constitution is amended in such a way, it may be that any such challenge would be doomed to failure. Not knowing anything about what has actually transpired in Kentucky, and knowing that benefits are very much the issue for gay and lesbian couples, I strongly suspect the reasons are not what is implied here.

  • The majority of people in Wisconsin believe that marriage should be between one man and one woman. [emphasis original]

Perhaps so, but the proposed amendment goes farther than that by preventing any other legal relationship substantially similar to marriage from being recognized. Someone could agree that marriage is by definition heterosexual while still being in favor of civil unions that provide the same legal benefits. Additionally, as an argument in support of the amendment, this is no more than asking people to go along with the crowd.

  • Twenty states have already adopted amendments to protect one-man/one-woman marriage, with an average of over 70% approval. [emphasis original]

Here again we have the argument that "everybody is doing it" and here again we have the claim that these amendments protect heterosexual marriage without any explanation of how heterosexual marriages are actually affected by homosexual marriages. The concept of marriage is just that, a concept. It exists in people's heads, and cannot be harmed and need not be protected legally. It is people that need protection, and same-sex couples can and should be protected (legally) in the same ways that heterosexual marriages are.

Finally, the back side of the flyer concludes by quoting the ballot question, the same question I included at the beginning of this post:

Shall section 13 of article XIII of the constitution be created to provide that only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state and that a legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state? [emphasis original]

Notice how the emphasis is again on the definitional aspect of the amendment. The more harmful part is the latter part, wherein civil unions, domestic partnerships or other legally equivalent statuses are rejected. Should this amendment pass, it will be interesting to see how quickly the second half of the amendment begins to be emphasized by those who are now emphasizing the first part. The amendment does clearly go beyond merely a definitional change, no matter how much Vote Yes for Marriage claims otherwise.

According to recent polls, the outcome of this vote is very much in doubt. A "No" vote merely maintains the status quo. A "Yes" vote not only establishes a particular definition of marriage but also actively enforces discrimination against same-sex couples. We can do better than that. I hope we will.

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