National Catholic Register


Some States Aim to Guard Marriage

BY David Coolidge

February 14-20, 1999 Issue | Posted 2/14/99 at 2:00 PM


WASHINGTON—Can “homosexual marriage” be stopped?

The first part of this series, published Feb. 7, explained how the campaign for “homosexual marriage” is an effort to redefine marriage while avoiding the democratic process. Yet the people are not mute. Their elected representatives have responded vigorously to this challenge, and Catholics have been an important part of the story.

After a no-holds-barred battle, here is the current total: Congress and 29 states have laws reaffirming marriage. Twenty-one states are up for grabs. This installment will tell the story of how state legislatures, and state Catholic conferences, have responded to the campaign for “homosexual marriage.”

The first line of response of citizens has been in the actual states whose laws are under attack in the courts. Constitutional amendments have passed in Hawaii and Alaska, and groups like Take It to the People are pursuing the case in Vermont. Before the battle ends, many states may amend their own state constitutions to deal with this question. The second arena has been Congress.

Defense of Marriage Act

Advocates of “homosexual marriage” openly argued that if one state legalizes “homosexual marriage,” every other state will have to recognize it. They advanced this claim based on their interpretation of the U.S. Constitution's “full faith and credit clause,” which often requires states to honor each other's legal proceedings.

“Homosexual marriage” advocates also claimed that the federal government would have to honor any “homosexual marriage” legalized in any state in its administration of marriage-related statutes.

Congress reacted with alarm to these claims. Congress was worried that courts might misinterpret the law unless it took swift action.

In 1996, after first efforts to pass a constitutional amendment in Hawaii failed, Congress responded by passing the Defense of Marriage Act. The act contained two sections.

The first defined marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman, for purposes of federal law. Thus, federal benefits would be reserved to opposite-sex married couples regardless of whether a state allowed “homosexual marriages.”

The second part of the Defense of Marriage Act clarified the law of marriage recognition by stating that a state did not have to recognize a “homosexual marriage” from another state. If Hawaii chose to legalize “homosexual marriage,” it would be up to each state to decide whether or not to recognize it.

In the heat of the election year, both President Clinton and Republican nominee Robert Dole endorsed the Defense of Marriage Act. It passed both the House and Senate with overwhelming majorities, and Clinton signed it in the fall of 1996.

In the summer of 1996, the U.S. Catholic Conference issued a statement on “homosexual marriage.” Frank Monahan, director of the conference's Office of Government Liaison, noted that while the statement did not address the Defense of Marriage Act specifically, it said categorically that “we oppose attempts to grant the legal status of marriage to a relationship between persons of the same sex.”

In their statement, the bishops restated the Church's teaching that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, and that marriage was established by God. They noted the importance of defending traditional marriage: “Because the marital relationship offers benefits, unlike any other, to persons, to society, and to the Church, we wish to make it clear that the institution of marriage, as the union of one man and one woman, must be preserved, protected, and promoted in both public and private realms.”

Successful State Efforts

The third big arena has been in states not directly under attack. Some needed to make their own definitions of marriage explicit. All needed to make clear that they will only recognize marriages between a man and a woman. Between 1994 and 1998, 30 states passed laws, 29 of them with margins of more than 70%. (Missouri's law was struck down for unrelated procedural reasons, and needs to be re-enacted this year.)

Catholics have been heavily involved in these efforts to reaffirm marriage. Take Montana. In 1997, Sharon Hoff of the Montana Catholic Conference provided testimony in the state Legislature, appeared on a radio talk show debating a representative from the American Civil Liberties Union, and worked to alert citizens of the importance of the issue.

In Montana, her arguments made in favor of the bill are straightforward: Marriage is the fundamental institution of society that law should recognize, not redefine. By definition, marriage requires a man and a woman who complement each other. Hoff argues that the debate is not about equality, but about the definition and purpose of marriage. She thinks that most people in the country don't support the legalization of “homosexual marriage.” She also notes how important it is to reject bigotry, and work alongside others who support traditional marriage.

Florida also enacted marriage recognition legislation in 1997. Michael McCarron of the Florida Catholic Conference noted that because support for the legislation was strong, the Church did not need to be as involved in grass-roots efforts in Florida as it had been in Hawaii. The Catholic conference spoke out in support of the law. Its core theme was the sanctity of marriage.

McCarron noted that in our time there have been many attacks on the sanctity of marriage, and “homosexual marriage” is one of those challenges. The conference stresses that marriage between a man and a woman, as the fundamental basis of family life and the best setting for the nurture of children, is deserving of the protection of the laws. The conference avoided attacks on homosexuals as individuals, while reaffirming the value of traditional marriage.

In our time there have been many attacks on the sanctity of marriage, and ‘homosexual marriage’ is one of those challenges. The conference stresses that marriage between a man and a woman, as the fundamental basis of family life and the best setting for the nurture of children, is deserving of the protection of the laws.

Washington state, on the other hand, was much more difficult. It is the only state to have passed a marriage recognition law by overriding the veto of a governor. Pitched battles were fought in Washington state in 1996 (when the bill failed), 1997 (when the bill passed but was successfully vetoed by Gov. Gary Locke) and 1998 (when it passed over his objections).

Sister Sharon Park of the Washington Catholic Conference noted that the most difficult task was convincing legislators that legislation was necessary. The Catholic conference noted that no other state or country has ever allowed “homosexual marriage” and that it would be a very radical step to allow the courts to redefine marriage in this way. The conference further argued that privacy wasn't the only concept important to the debate, as opponents contended. Instead, the nature of marriage and its function in society was the real underlying issue.

Sister Sharon noted that each state's particular situation shapes the way the issue of “homosexual marriage” is addressed in that state. The Washington Legislature is very sensitive to the concerns of the “gay and lesbian community,” she pointed out. Therefore it was especially important for supporters of traditional marriage to be pro-marriage rather than anti-homosexual. Since most people support protecting traditional marriage, the message just needs to be clear.

Still Up for Grabs

Twenty-one states, however, have not yet passed marriage recognition statutes. A variety of factors help to explain this: well-organized support against reaffirming traditional marriage, especially in the more liberal New England and Atlantic Coast states; ambivalent and unprincipled politicians; and the challenge of getting out a “pro-marriage” message that is not immediately painted “anti-homosexual.”

Maryland Catholic Conference Director Dick Dowling and his colleague Pat Kelly have fought hard but unsuccessfully for marriage recognition statutes in Maryland for the past three years.

The climate is hostile, especially in the House Judiciary Committee. Kelly felt she had been “beaten up” while testifying before the panel. In her testimony she emphasized that marriage is an issue to be resolved by the legislature, not the courts.

Kelly and Dowling are concerned that the public does not know a lot about this issue, and is so concerned about being “tolerant” that it becomes hesitant to advocate any moral convictions. Kelly suggested that individual Catholics approach their legislators and tell them how important the issue of marriage really is.

In Massachusetts, Bernard Cardinal Law of Boston along with other bishops have spoken out on the importance of marriage and family life for years. Gerry D'Avolio, director of the Massachusetts Catholic Conference, expects the conference to strongly support marriage-recognition legislation.

Meanwhile, however, the culture is saturated with pro-"homosexual marriage” messages, and this makes passage of legislation in Massachusetts a real challenge. Part of the key, says D'Avolio, is for ordinary people to understand that legalizing “homosexual marriage” is not a matter of “leaving people alone.” Instead, it involves the courts forcing an improper view of marriage upon society.

D'Avolio stressed that the average citizen is likely to favor traditional marriage, but wants to avoid being labeled “homophobic” or “anti-homosexual.” D'Avolio hopes that each concerned Catholic will get involved, because the issue of marriage affects them and their families and generations to come.

In California, despite efforts to promote marriage recognition legislation in the Legislature, homosexual activists have fought back fiercely, resulting in a stalemate. Now, after the 1998 elections, two lesbians are in leadership positions in the state Legislature. State Senator Pete Knight, a Catholic layman, could see his bill going nowhere.

So in California, supporters of traditional marriage are going directly to the people. During 1998, petitions were circulated across the state and signed by more than a half-million people. Now a Marriage Initiative will be on the general election ballot a year from March, the same day as the 2000 presidential primary.

The bishops of California are following the initiative campaign with keen interest.

Ned Doljesi, director of the California Catholic Conference, noted that as the debate heats up, there will be many opportunities for involvement by Catholics interested in defending traditional marriage. He pointed out that this is a good time for Catholics to inform themselves about their beliefs through study of Scripture and tradition, through conversations, and through prayer. Then, they should contact their local diocesan Family Life Office or get involved as individual citizens.

Now What?

These stories make clear that people are resisting the campaign for “homosexual marriage.” Catholics have worked closely with others of good will to present arguments for marriage as the union of a man and a woman to elected representatives. When those arguments are thoughtfully and respectfully made, they can have tremendous influence.

But the battle is hardly over. Next week, we will sum up by taking a look at where the “homosexual marriage” issue may go in the future. By then you should have no doubt why the law's definition of marriage matters to every concerned Catholic.

David Coolidge writes from Washington, D.C.