The long debate over same-sex unions intensified with the vote by New York’s state legislature last week legalizing same-sex marriages. This week’s The Maine Debate poses the questions at the heart of the debate: Does the Constitution extend civil rights to all, or are opposite-sex marriages so foundational to society that they supersede individual rights?
Same-sex marriage entered the public debate in 1993, when the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that a state law banning same-sex marriage was unconstitutional unless state government could show a compelling reason for denying that option to gay and lesbian couples.
Congress in 1996 passed and President Bill Clinton signed the Defense of Marriage Act, which declared that marriage was confined to unions of one man, one woman, a preemptive strike against the push for civil unions.
Through the 2000s, the debate intensified. In 2000, Vermont legalized civil unions between same-sex couples. In 2003, the Massachusetts high court ruled same-sex couples were entitled to the same right to marry as opposite sex couples. Some cities around the U.S. began issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, counting on the Massachusetts ruling to serve as a precedent.
But a push-back followed, with voters in more than a dozen states adopting constitutional amendments that defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman. In Maine, the Legislature approved and Gov. John Baldacci signed a law that allowed same-sex marriages, but a referendum vote in 2009 repealed the law.
So the debate continues. Join us on the Opinion page at bangordailynews.com and join in the discussion.
On one side, the argument is simple: The Constitution extends basic civil rights to all. Regardless of age, wealth, ethnicity, religion, health, education or most any other qualifier, Americans are allowed to work, rent or purchase housing, purchase cars and get licenses to drive, enroll in K-12 and post-secondary education, be treated by health care providers, draw Social Security and engage in a myriad of other public activities. If gays and lesbians are allowed to do all of the above because of the Constitution, why would they not be allowed to marry?
The slippery slope argument that allowing gay men and lesbian women to marry their partners will lead to three men and several barnyard animals joining together is specious. Marriage can be defined as the legal union of two consenting adults. And if marriage makes for a stronger society, then what good comes of denying gays and lesbians the ability to legalize their unions?
On the other side, the argument is that marriage, as a union of a man and woman, is a unique component of society. Though marriage is not described in the Constitution, it is understood as a building block, the foundation of family, especially given that traditional couples can have children. Marriage licenses also could be seen as a privilege extended by society, just as driving licenses are understood this way. Traditional marriage also is essential in all the major religions, and in that sense predates the Constitution.
Join us Tuesday, 10 a.m. to noon and beyond in debating these questions.