In what can only be described as an incredible act of patriotic fervor and political courage, Bob Dole and Bill Clinton set aside their petty differences and tackled a truly epic social issue confronting the American electorate.
What, you can’t recall this monumental piece of legislation? Was it a sweeping environmental protection bill or increased support for our nation’s crumbling public schools? Perhaps it was a far-reaching anti-crime initiative or an overhaul of sclerotic entitlement programs like Social Security and Medicare? Nope. The Clinton/Dole tag team is crusading to protect the sanctity of marriage, whatever that means in an age of no-fault divorce, single-parent families and extramarital liaisons like the Morris affair.
For those of you who escaped to Europe during school vacation or spent three months on an Alaskan fishing boat, Congress spent the summer carefully crafting an election-year wedge issue whose supporters include William Bennett (Mr. “Virtues”) and Bob Dole, the Christian-right poster child of hatred and intolerance. Drifting with the prevailing electoral winds, Clinton signed the legislation saying he never supported gay marriage in the first place. From this perspective, I suppose Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy affecting gays in the military in 1992 isn’t the soft executive order I once thought.
Impetus for the bill defending marriage developed earlier this year. In May the Supreme Court considered Romer vs. Evans and threw out Colorado’s constitutional amendment that barred any legislation protecting homosexuals from discrimination. This was the first case in which the Supreme Court offered constitutional protection to gays and lesbians, and it was a dramatic turnaround from its last ruling a decade ago in Bowers vs. Hardwick when the justices found nothing that prevented the states from criminalizing sodomy. The recent Supreme Court slam-dunk of the Colorado case sent the more reactionary elements of society scurrying to Congress seeking a legislative redress.
Currently, a three-judge panel in Hawaii is hearing arguments in a case that is sending many religious conservatives running for a bottle of Pepto-Bismol. Under Hawaii’s liberal constitution, the court is soon expected to legalize gay marriage. Lord only knows that something had to be done.
That something was a preemptive measure ingeniously titled the Defense of Marriage Act, and it defines marriage as the “legal union between one man and woman as husband and wife.” One of the key provisions of the statute allows states to ignore the “full faith and credit clause” of Article IV of the Constitution by not recognizing gay marriages performed in other states (say, Hawaii). It also gives states the power to withhold spousal benefits guaranteed under federal law to same-sex couples. Thus a gay partner can’t count on Social Security payments or medical insurance during hard times. Framers of the bill aren’t bothered by the second-class status of homosexuals in this country. Disfranchised minority? Never heard of ’em.
On an overwhelming vote, 85 senators (and more than 300 representatives in the House) denied gays the same right heterosexuals have enjoyed for more than 4,000 years. Even Minnesota’s Sen. Paul Wellstone, arguably the country’s most liberal senator, bowed down to the God of Popular Opinion and supported the measure. The Beltway crowd made clear that gays aren’t factored into the calculus of human rights, and as such, they don’t deserve the basic protections most married couples take for granted.
Even more disturbing, the Senate defeated an amendment to the bill sponsored by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., that would have prohibited discrimination in the workplace on the basis of sexual orientation. More than two decades after the passage of equal opportunity laws, gays still suffer taunts, humiliation and even physical violence in work environments. And there isn’t much they can do about it. Employers in 41 states are free to fire workers on the basis of sexual orientation (Minnesota, in case you’re wondering, is one of the more enlightened states that prohibits gay-bashing in the employment arena). In the absence of any federal rules, on-the-job discrimination against gays is state-sanctioned corporate behavior.
Apparently heterosexual couples feel threatened by the prospect of sharing the holy sacrament of marriage with Akbar and Jeff, Matt Groening’s perennially happy comic strip gay twosome. To some, the idea of two homosexuals loving and serving one another, for better or for worse, somehow weakens the most basic of social institutions. Marriage, they say, is by definition between a man and a woman. Maybe, so, but the definition of marriage has survived a lot of change. For example, not too many centuries ago a woman was considered her husband’s legal property. Not so anymore. And until recently, prevailing public attitudes held that marriage was by definition between people of the same race. Again, not true today.
The freedom to marry whomever one chooses is one of the hallmark rights of a liberal society. It is an indispensable as the right to vote or the freedom of assembly. Gay marriage is not a special right or the result of preferential treatment; rather, it is a fundamental prerequisite to civil equality and fairness.
Listen to the zealots long enough, and you’ll soon believe married gays are as dangerous as the aliens in “Independence Day.” Gay marriage, however, won’t destroy our cities, and the Defense of Marriage Act should be tossed in a legislative Dumpster. The issue is one of basic human dignity and respect, and it deserves national support.
Greg Lauer’s column will appear in the Daily every Wednesday.