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September 11, 2003
Vol. 1, No. 108




Joe Feuerherd Marriage debate joined

By Joe Feuerherd, NCR Washington correspondent

Americanism is about to go head-to-head, yet again, with Catholicism. This time the issue is gay marriage.

In the 2000 election vice presidential debate, candidate Dick Cheney was asked his view of a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. "The fact of the matter is we live in a free society, and freedom means freedom for everybody," said Cheney. "And I think that means that people should be free to enter into any kind of relationship they want to enter into I think different states are likely to come to different conclusions, and that's appropriate."

It was a quintessentially American response. Don't tread on me, said Cheney, and to the extent that government chooses to do so, it should be a state legislature, and not the federal government, that restricts a citizen's desires.

The U.S. Catholic bishops disagree. Their 47-member administrative committee, in a statement released Tuesday, offered their "general support for a Federal Marriage Amendment to the U.S. Constitution."

Said the bishops: "What are called 'homosexual unions,' because they do not express full human complementarity and because they are inherently non-procreative, cannot be given the status of marriage." The same goes for "civil unions" and other attempts to "grant same-sex unions the equivalent status and rights of marriage," the bishops said.

The bishops' statement follows close on the heels of a statement from the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith condemning efforts to equate gay unions with traditional marriage.

It's not a theoretical issue. Hundreds of local governments and corporations now grant medical and other benefits to domestic partners, Canada recognizes gay marriage, Vermont has civil unions, and the issue is being hotly debated in Massachusetts.

A Federal Marriage Amendment was introduced in Congress last year. It reads: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."

Now "general support" of the kind expressed by the bishops leaves a lot of wiggle room; some gay marriage opponents, for example, think the language of the amendment proposed in Congress (read that second sentence closely) is too loose because it would allow state legislatures to recognize "civil unions," like those in Vermont, or grant marriage-like benefits to gay couples.

Tinkering with the Constitution, moreover, is tricky business. Amendments are generally limited to asserting individual rights (the Bill of Rights) or questions of governance (the income tax, presidential succession, direct election of Senators, Congressional compensation). Efforts to place social policy issues -- alcohol consumption, the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion -- in the country's bedrock document have been dismal failures.

The Americanism the bishops' challenge is not primarily that of our country's tradition of tolerance; we're not so tolerant about a lot of things. It is, rather, our history of federalism -- the notion that the level of government capable of dealing with an issue should be that which is closest to the people. Marriage has always been a state issue.

A further question: What type of pressure will the bishops -- individually and collectively -- place on Catholic legislators who oppose a constitutional amendment or support civil unions? The Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith said earlier this summer that politicians who support such initiatives act in a "gravely immoral" fashion.

Like the ongoing battles over abortion, this is an issue that is not likely to go away anytime soon. There is passion on both sides and no quick fix.

It could get real ugly.

Joe Feuerherd's e-mail address is

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