Friday, May 25, 2012
[Published in The Bend Bulletin, May 25, 2012]
On May 8, North Carolina voters enshrined in their constitution a ban on same-sex marriage. The next day, President Barack Obama said he had come to believe that gays and lesbians should have the right to marry.
Why the president chose the day he did to announce the evolution of his thinking about the matter is of little concern to me. What is important to me is that the president has come to the conclusion that gays and lesbians should no longer be denied the right to be joined in marriage.
At the core of this dispute, there is considerable misinformation about what “traditional” marriage has been in Western history. Instead of one immutable marriage tradition — as anti-same-sex marriage supporters maintain — over the last three thousand years, the institution of marriage has constantly been changing.
Traditional marriage in the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) was polygamy, in which one man had more than one wife. By the time of Jesus, monogamy had become the ideal, although polygamy was still practiced. Jesus’ pronouncements on marriage are mostly concerned with sexual injustices directed against women, but say nothing challenging polygamy.
Marriage did not become a sacrament in the Roman Catholic Church until the 12th century. Before that time, in Europe, traditional marriages were basically civil unions by town or village government.
In the 1700s and 1800s, here in this land, traditional marriage meant the loss of many of women’s legal rights (owning property, paying taxes and signing contracts) when they agreed to get married. It was not until the latter half of the 19th century that married women reacquired the rights they had when they were single. As late as 1920, a number of states still had discriminatory laws on their books.
In the 19th century, traditional marriage in 40 states came to mean banning the marriage of a white person to a person of color. Decrying the practice as “immoral” and “unnatural,” a Virginia judge upheld that state’s ban on interracial marriages, saying, in language with the same tone as that being used in opposition to gay marriages today:
“Almighty God created the races white, black, yellow, malay and red, and he placed them on separate continents. And but for the interference with his arrangement there would be no cause for such marriages. The fact that he separated the races shows that he did not intend for the races to mix.”
In 1948, the California Supreme Court became the first state high court to declare a ban on interracial marriage unconstitutional. The court pointed out that races don’t marry each other, people do. Restricting who can marry whom on that characteristic alone was therefore race discrimination.
It took another 19 years for the U.S. Supreme Court to make the same ruling. Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote the Supreme Court ruling in the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case, saying, “The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.”
Two people whose interracial marriage would have been illegal in Virginia at the time of the birth of their son were the parents of President Barack Obama.
In years to come, I have little doubt that our children and grandchildren will wonder what all the fuss was about. Despite the vote in North Carolina, there is a sea change going on in the American public’s attitude toward gay marriage. So why spend energy worrying about the issue today? Because I believe in that cornerstone of freedom from the 13th century Magna Carta: “Justice delayed is justice denied.” Family members, dear friends and multitudes of people whose names I do not know across this land suffer the pain of this discrimination daily.
Let’s stop hiding behind the myth of “traditional” marriage and recognize the reality of discrimination.
— Milo Thornberry