Gay Marriage Debate: Wedded States
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MARGARET WARNER: This was the scene in San Francisco’s City Hall a few weeks ago, a symbolic wedding ceremony for 200 same-sex couples. Since 1991, gay couples have been able to register as domestic partners in San Francisco, but as in the rest of the United States, it is illegal for them to marry. Making such marriages legal has become an increasingly heated issue in recent weeks among gay rights advocates, church groups, and state and national politicians.
The issue has assumed political dimensions because of a lawsuit brought against the state of Hawaii by three gay couples who claimed the state was discriminating against them in denying them marriage licenses. In a preliminary ruling favoring the couples, the Hawaiian Supreme Court ordered the state to prove that there’s a compelling state interest in barring same-sex marriages. If the state cannot, gay marriages will be legal in Hawaii. Many cultural and religious conservatives in other states are alarmed over the developments in Hawaii, since a marriage performed and recognized in one state is normally recognized in all others. A southern California Christian group produced this video and sent it to church members and state legislators.
SPOKESMAN: When you can crack marriage and completely destroy the definition of it, you’ve just overturned all of society’s moral structure.
MARGARET WARNER: Many states are now considering legislation protecting them against having to recognize gay marriages performed elsewhere. Ten states have passed anti-gay marriage laws. Similar efforts have failed in seventeen other states, and they’re still pending in eight others. Gay activists are fighting such legislative attempts. They took heart from a U.S. Supreme Court ruling this week that threw out a Colorado constitutional amendment banning all local gay rights laws. It isn’t clear, however, whether or not that ruling might apply to the same-sex marriage issue.
On Capitol Hill, nearly 60 House Republicans and 60 Democrats have introduced a bill called the Defense of Marriage Act. It does not specifically outlaw same-sex marriages, but it defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and says that states don’t have to recognize gay marriages performed and recognized elsewhere. Bob Dole, the assumed Republican Presidential candidate, is a co-sponsor of the Senate version of the bill. Gay rights groups were counting on a veto of the bill if it ever reached the President’s desk, but yesterday White House spokesman Mike McCurry said the President would sign the bill. Today in Milwaukee, President Clinton responded to critics in the gay community who had expressed outrage at McCurry’s remarks.
PRESIDENT CLINTON: I’d say look at my record. Name me another President who has been so pilloried for standing up for the fact that we shouldn’t discriminate against any group of Americans, including gay Americans, who are willing to work hard, pay their taxes, obey the law, and be good citizens. And let me just say, even though, I will sign this bill, if that’s what it does, and that’s what I understand it does, this is hardly a problem that is sweeping the country. No state has, has legalized gay marriages. Only one state is considering it. We all know why this is in Washington now. It’s one more attempt to divert the American people from the urgent need to confront our challenges together. Now that’s really what’s going on here. And I’m determined–this has always been my position on gay marriage. It was my position in ’92. I told everybody who asked me about it, straight or gay, what my position was. I can’t change my position on that. I have no intention of it, but I am going to do everything I can to stop this election from degenerating into an attempt to pit one group of Americans against another.
MARGARET WARNER: Here to debate the issue now are Elizabeth Birch, executive director of the Human Rights Campaign, a gay and lesbian education and advocacy group; Rev. Robert Schenck, a general secretary of the National Clergy Council, an ecumenical network representing over 4,000 clergy; Republican Rep. Bob Barr, primary sponsor of the House bill regarding same-sex marriages; and Democratic Rep. Barney Frank, who opposes the bill. Welcome all of you. Elizabeth Birch, why do members of the homosexual community want the right to be married and have that legally recognized?
ELIZABETH BIRCH, Human Rights Campaign: Well, I think we first have to simply acknowledge that there will be no right to marry in this country for a number of years between two adults of the same gender. So I think we have to recognize that this debate is taking place in an election year, and it’s a very mean-spirited political ploy, I believe, but let’s just step back and note this: There have always been gay and lesbian Americans. There will always be gay Americans, and families have grappled in very emotional ways with this issue. I think the real issue is what does a nation do with its gay and lesbian sons and daughters and who gets to decide. There are two components to marriage. One is a religious ritual that is regarded as very, very sacred, and nothing that happens in Hawaii or anywhere else will touch that. But there’s also a civil side to marriage that I think is being ignored here and glossed over. There are benefits that flow from the private ordering of one’s life and memorializing it, and gay and lesbian Americans are taxpayers. They helped to build all the institutions of America and this society, and if they help to build them and invest in them, they should get the returns that flow to every other American.
MARGARET WARNER: Reverend, why do you find the concept of gay marriage so unacceptable?
REV. ROBERT SCHENCK, National Clergy Council: Well, let me say that I agree with much of what Ms. Birch has said, and I think there are important things to be said. But we have to look at the very definition of marriage, what marriage is. Marriage is primarily a religious notion. It began that way. It has always been that way. The vast majority of marriages are performed under the aegis of some religious institution. Most marriages are solemnized by religious officials, and the vast majority of people will look at marriage as more than just a business arrangement. It is a spiritual thing, and it has very deep and very, very profound meaning. And historically and religiously, and I think I speak for more than the Christian religion, I happen to be a Christian, but if you examined virtually every major religion, you would find that marriage has been exclusively for a man and a woman to bind themselves together for a life-long commitment with a very critical component, and that is procreation for the rearing of children. And it’s when you bring all these elements into marriage that you realize this is far more than just signing an agreement and having a mutually beneficial business arrangement. And this proposal to violate the historic and, and very deep and profound meaning of marriage offends the sensibilities of the vast majority of people. And I think that’s why we have the situation that we have in this debate.
MARGARET WARNER: What about his point about the historic and religious roots of this? Is that without merit?
MS. BIRCH: I think that it’s without merit to make decisions based on what used to be, what is a historical kind of compass. If that were true, we would still have slaves in this country, we would still have women being the property of men when they got married, we would say that inter-racial marriage is wrong. This is no way for a free society to make decisions. And that’s why there’s a sacred old constitutional construct of the separation of church and state. What I said is who is to decide, and the same cast of characters that are bringing this anti-gay onslaught in this election year are precisely the same organizations and people that brought us the anti-gay state ballot initiatives, which thankfully the highest court in the land ruled out this weekend.
MARGARET WARNER: Let’s stay on the same-sex marriage issue. I mean, could you imagine some other kind of legal union that the homosexual community would accept that would not be called marriage but would convey the legal protections and benefits that you say you seek?
MS. BIRCH: I don’t think so because I think that it would be a waste of resources for the society, a profound waste of resources, to build parallel machinery and structures to order the benefits that flow from marriage. Remember, the only one–the only people making this murky and bringing the religious to the civil side are the people that are advocating that under no circumstances should gay and lesbian people be able to marry.
MARGARET WARNER: What do you say to her earlier point that it’s really in society’s interest to have stable relationships of all kinds and that gays who make these kind of commitments ought to be supported, at least by the legal protections that we convey to marriage?
REV. SCHENCK: Again, because marriage fills a very unique role in human culture historically, and we’re not again just limiting this to American history, we’re going back 5,000 plus years of recorded history, and I think if you examine virtually every human society or culture, you’re going to find that marriage fills a unique, a truly unique role, and it’s not to be toyed with or experimented with because the consequences are exponential. And while it seems a noble thing to say yes, two people should be able to commit themselves together for life. We have to realize that marriage has parameters, just as other human relationships do. I cannot just go out and engage in any kind of relationship I please. We put social parameters. For example, I love my children passionately, but I am not allowed to express my love to my children or anyone else’s children sexually. And there are parameters around human sexuality and those parameters have proven historically to be extremely beneficial. So here to, to go on some reckless experimentation, we already see the consequences, for example, of single-parent homes. We had for a while people advocating, well, it’s not important to have a father present in the home. Now we’re beginning to see the fallout of that. And the consequences are enormous, and they are exponential. And the same will happen here. I don’t think people are ready for example in public school, for a homosexual couple to be held up as the equivalent of heterosexual male/female marriage. I don’t think we’re ready for the consequences.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get the two congressmen in on this now. Rep. Barr, what would be the practical effect of your bill, if it were to pass?
REP. BOB BARR, (R) Georgia: Well, the practical effect would be fairly limited but very, very important. And this legislation that we’re working on through the House and which I expect to pass and which the President has indicated he would sign is far from the extremist piece of legislation that homosexual proponents would have the country believe it is. It is a very simple, very straightforward and very carefully crafted and specifically targeted reaction to the situation in Hawaii. Now whether the situation in Hawaii presents itself to us in three months or four months or a year I don’t think is really the issue.
The issue is: Does Congress have a responsibility in light of confusing court cases and in light of certain challenges by homosexual activists, once the court in Hawaii reaches this final decision, to prevent that from being forced on the citizens of all the other states without the citizens of each one of those states making a very careful and very profound public policy decision. Ms. Birch mentioned something about who will decide these issues. Well, I don’t think, and I’m surprised to think that she would feel or that Rep. Frank would believe that three judges in Hawaii should speak for the rest of the country. All our legislation says is that no one state shall be forced to accept homosexual marriages if they are, in fact, recognized in another state.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Frank, what’s wrong with that?
REP. BARNEY FRANK, (D) Massachusetts: What’s wrong with it is that it’s not really an accurate representation of what Mr. Barr and others think is the situation. You noted that–in your earlier introduction–that 10 states have already passed laws saying they will not recognize gay marriages. The proponents of this bill all believe, or almost all of them believe, that the states already have the power to do this. There is the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution. There’s a doctrine that says a state may by its own public policy exempt itself from certain full faith and credit. Everyone believes, who believes that the states can do this, that the states already can.
What we have here, and it does make a difference when we do this, we’re in the mist of a Presidential election campaign. We have a Republican majority in Congress which has been unable to do very much. They filed this bill. A week later they had a hearing. They’re rushing to judgment before we can discuss a lot of the implications because this is not about what states do in marriages. This is what the states do in the electoral college. What we have is a situation where the states already have constitutional authority to make public policy exceptions. The Supreme Court will then have the constitutional decision to say is that a legitimate one or not. There’s no role for the Congress in this, and the people who are pushing this bill, in fact, believe that the ten state laws that have been adopted have already been done.
What we have here is politics, and, look, we just heard this from one of your guests who said, well, you know, this offends people’s sensibilities. I do not think it is a decent way to behave to try to disarrange the lives of others because they’ve offended your sensibilities. My living with another man has no negative impact on anyone else. If you don’t like it, don’t come to our house for dinner, don’t invite us to your house for dinner. Live your life, and let us live ours. But the notion that because this is going to offend his sensibilities we should be denied certain basic rights hardly rises to the level of legitimate national legislation.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Barr, how do you respond to that?
REP. BARR: Well, of course, the fact of the matter is the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution specifically gives Congress the power to pass laws that, that can limit its effect, or that determine the effect that it shall be given. Also, as Mr. Frank well knows, there is great uncertainty in this area. There is great uncertainty in how the courts are going to rule. Take the case earlier this week in which the court ruled on a homosexual matter from the, from the state of Colorado.
If one had gone back and looked at previous decisions of the Supreme Court over the last decade and looked at cases where it had decided issues relating to homosexuality, finding, for example, that homosexual behavior is not a constitutionally protected form of behavior, and other cases, one would have not concluded that the court would throw out the Colorado amendment, but they did. So the fact of the matter is even though, yes, certain states, including my state, have passed laws saying that homosexual marriages will not be recognized in our state, reflecting very strong public policy opinion in that area, there is uncertainty, and I think it’s responsible of Congress to craft this very narrowly targeted response to a situation that is going to present itself, the extremists who are pushing this agenda are going to force–
REP. FRANK: May I just say–
MARGARET WARNER: Go right ahead.
REP. FRANK: Yes, there is some uncertainty, but it’s not an uncertainty which is resolved one way or other by a congressional statute. Mr. Barr mentioned the Colorado case. All the congressional statutes in the world wouldn’t have had any effect. That was the Supreme Court ruling on the substantive constitutionality of what Colorado did. These are people who believe that the states have the right to do what they already did, but what they’ve got is gay bashing envy. They are sorry that the states got into the act, and they can’t.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me–
REP. FRANK: They want to help the–
MARGARET WARNER: –interrupt you.
REP. FRANK: –Dole campaign by putting this into the Presidential campaign.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman, let me ask both of you now, what do you think the President’s decision to sign this bill, if it gets to him, does to prospects for passage of the bill? Congressman Barr first, and briefly, we don’t have a lot of time.
REP. BARR: Well, of course, those that are bashing me, let’s talk about heterosexual bashing here, uh, are saying that this is extremist legislation. I think it’s very difficult for them now to state that with a straight face since the President of their own party has come forward and said this is responsible, reasonable legislation, and I intend to sign it.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Frank?
REP. FRANK: Well, I’m sorry Mr. Barr’s tender feelings have been hurt by people who are critical of him. I’ll try to be more considerate of him in the future. The President is running for reelection. I’m disappointed in what he did, but to be honest with you, I long ago came to accept the fact that on some issues people who agreed with on everything were probably not going to be able to be elected President. I think what happened is this: The Republicans cleverly found a way to take the attention away from Medicare and the environment and Medicaid and education, and they threw this in the President’s lap. And I think he is responding out of political necessity as he sees it. I think he’s wrong. I think he misreads it. But as far as affecting chances for passage, it was going to pass anyway because the Republicans are so frustrated by their inability to do anything in Congress this year or to make any real capital that they–this is just a godsend to them as far as they’re concerned, and they were going to put it through anyway.
MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Birch, how do you see the President’s action?
MS. BIRCH: I see that the bill itself, and I must say that I think Rep. Barr is completely disingenuous, because if he was telling the truth, they would amend the bill and add, you know, notions of procreation, only people who can procreate, maybe second and third marriages. We’ve always been unclear about which marriage of his he’s defending, his first, his second, or his third, and what they’ve done very cleverly here is they’ve taken this bill and they’ve boxed President Clinton. That was the point of this. It was to separate President Clinton from an important part of his base, gay and lesbian Americans, and no gay or lesbian American should allow that to happen.
MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Barr, do you want to say a quick word in response to that?
REP. BARR: Well, these are arguments ad hominem. The fact of the matter is the President pulled the ground out from under the, the extremists on the other side, and they’re scrambling around trying to find some way of making up for what is a specious argument on their part, that this is extremist legislation. It reflects the views of the vast majority of people in this country. It will pass, the President will sign it, and that’s the way it should be.
MARGARET WARNER: Rev. Schenck briefly, do you think the President’s move now takes this out of Presidential politics and politics in this election year?
REV. SCHENCK: Well, no, it doesn’t, and it won’t go away, because it is such an important issue, and it’s important that we’re having this debate, and it’s too bad that Ms. Birch relies on ad hominem insults against a man because this is a very, very critical issue. This will not go away.
MS. BIRCH: Excuse me, Reverend.
REV. SCHENCK: And it’s–
MS. BIRCH: This is man is–
MARGARET WARNER: Let him finish.
MS. BIRCH: –pushing–
REV. SCHENCK: Well, I’m just saying that this has its own merits. We have to debate the issue for what it really is, and that’s not going to go away, and we have to remember, this is not an anti-anything act. This is a defense of marriage. This is a defense of the historic traditional marriage between man and woman. That’s what the debate is all about. That’s what we ought to confine it to.
REP. FRANK: This is a defense against no attack. My living with another man in a loving relationship is no threat to anyone else’s marriage.
REV. SCHENCK: Quite to the contrary, sir.
REP. FRANK: Call it what you want.
REV. SCHENCK: It has enormous–
REP. FRANK: Sir, you are defending nothing because nothing is being threatened or attacked. Two people, a man and a woman who are living together and love each other and have a marriage, they are not threatened by this. That is simply silly. I am not threatening anyone by living with another man in a loving relationship.
REV. SCHENCK: I disagree with you, Sir.
REP. FRANK: And that language–
REV. SCHENCK: I disagree with you.
REP. FRANK: –that language accusing of attacking a marriage, I know a lot of emotion–many of my friends and relatives are married, and they do not feel that their marriage is threatened by–
MARGARET WARNER: All right.
REP. FRANK: –by this in the slightest.
REV. SCHENCK: No, all–
MARGARET WARNER: Very brief.
REV. SCHENCK: –all of our behaviors impact, uh–we are not islands. We are not only unto ourselves. Every action we take–
MARGARET WARNER: All right.
REV. SCHENCK: –has consequences on others–
MARGARET WARNER: All right.
REV. SCHENCK: –and particularly on children.
MARGARET WARNER: I’m sorry, all of you, we’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you very much.