WASHINGTON — Despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 26 rulings on “gay marriage,” experts in law and sociology said they do not believe the national discussion on the matter is over.
“Sociologically, it’s huge,” said Anne Hendershott about the Supreme Court’s two decisions, “but it doesn’t end the debate.”
Hendershott is a leading Catholic sociologist from King’s College in New York City and a current professor of sociology at Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio.
“People can persuade other people: It’s not inevitable,” she told Catholic News Agency.
In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that a section of the Defense of Marriage Act that defines marriage as the union of one man and one woman for federal purposes is unconstitutional.
The 1996 law — also known as DOMA — violates the constitutional guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law, the majority opinion said, adding that supporters of the law intended “to disparage and to injure” homosexual individuals.
In addition, the Supreme Court dismissed a case regarding California’s Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment that defined marriage within the state as being between a man and a woman. The court did not rule on the merits of the case, but simply rejected it on the grounds that the defendants of the amendment did not have standing to defend it legally.
As a result, a ruling by a lower court holding Prop. 8 to be unconstitutional will be allowed to stand, despite the fact that the people of California had approved it as a state constitutional amendment.
Kim Daniels, spokeswoman for the president of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, said that the decisions fail to recognize the truth about the nature of marriage but will likely generate more debate on the topic in public policy.
“The Supreme Court got it wrong today,” Daniels told CNA June 26. “The government should respect the truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman, even where states fail to do so.”
She also noted that, in the case regarding California’s Proposition 8, “the court missed an opportunity to uphold the voices of millions of Californians who voted to protect marriage’s meaning as the union of a man and a woman for the sake of their children.”
Daniels also warned that this decision to redefine marriage will lead to “an increased erosion of religious freedom.”
“Religious institutions and individuals will face real threats to their ability to witness to their faith,” she said. “Those who continue to live by the belief that marriage is the union of a man and a woman may lose access to government contracts and benefits, among many other challenges that could unfold.”
However, Daniels noted that the public debate and discussion on the institution of marriage was not ended prematurely by the court’s decisions.
Rather, she said, the rulings “will re-energize the public conversation about marriage, and Catholics will continue to be an important part of that conversation.”
“In season and out, we’ll witness to the importance of marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman that serves the common good of our country.”
Hendershott echoed Daniels’ comments on the importance of continued dialogue. She said that the court’s decision “is really mixed” because the court “refused to create a constitutional right to same-sex 'marriage.'”
Under the June 26 rulings, states are not required to recognize “gay marriages,” she observed. The court simply said that the federal government must accept same-sex unions as marriages in states that choose to accept them. Currently, only 12 states and the District of Columbia have redefine marriage to include homosexual couples.
Difficult Fight Ahead
The momentum from the Supreme Court’s decision will likely bring additional challenges for those who wish to defend marriage, Hendershott acknowledged, but “momentum isn’t everything,” and a redefinition of marriage “isn’t inevitable.”
Because the court did not try to establish same-sex “marriage” as a right, she stressed, “we can still be part of a debate.”
The fight will be difficult, the sociologist cautioned, because the court’s majority decision “said that the supporters of marriage acted with malice to discriminate.”
“We’re already looked at as not wanting people to be in love and not wanting to grant people their rights,” she observed, voicing concern that those who try to explain the Church’s teaching in a reasoned and compassionate manner will be increasingly accused of malice and discrimination.
The same holds true for members of other religions — such as evangelicals and Mormons — who defend marriage, she said, explaining that “they’re not acting out of malice: They’re trying to defend marriage because that’s what they think is best for the state, what’s best for the people.”