The state of the union

Sunday, July 11, 2004

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. -- In terms of secular law, religious teachings and prevailing societal standards, the concept that marriage can only exist between a man and a woman has been virtually unchallenged in Western culture.

However, the institution of marriage has evolved greatly over the centuries, as have ideas concerning what it means to be married.

As the debate over same-sex marriage has raged throughout America, it has prompted a re-examination of the institution's role in society.

What constitutes a marriage depends on the context in which it is viewed.

Some see it as the very foundation of society, essential to procreation and the stable family unit. From the religious standpoint, it is a bonding of man and wife under the blessing of God.

As far as the law is concerned, marriage is just a civil contract between consenting parties. However, states have long restricted who has standing to enter into the marriage contract. Laws traditionally have set minimum age and mental competency requirements. Marriages between blood relatives and bigamous or polygamous unions have been prohibited. Until the 1960s, many states also forbade interracial marriage.

Until the last decade, however, marriage between homosexuals was deemed so outside the mainstream that only a handful of states had codified its prohibition, although in practice same-sex marriage had never been legally recognized in this country.

Today, at least 41 states, including Missouri, have laws barring same-sex marriage. Four states, three of which also have statutes to that effect, ban same-sex marriage within their state constitutions.

On Aug. 3, Missouri voters will decide whether the existing public policy prohibiting same-sex marriage should be strengthened with a state constitutional amendment. The proposal, known as Amendment II, states: "That to be valid and recognized in this state, a marriage shall exist only between a man and a woman."

Although voters in at least six other states will decide similar proposals later this year, Missouri will be the first, with the outcome of the election being closely watched nationwide as Congress debates a proposed amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would ensure marriage remains an institution for heterosexuals only.

Among opponents of same-sex marriage, the issue took on a sense of urgency in November 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled 4-3 that same-sex couples have the right to wed. Massachusetts officials began issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples in May, becoming the first state to do so.

In 2000, Vermont authorized "civil unions" that grant same-sex couples the same legal privileges of married couples but stop short of calling such unions "marriages."

Vicky Hartzler, spokeswoman for the Coalition to Protect Marriage in Missouri, says the state constitution needs to be changed so a Missouri court doesn't have the option of following the Massachusetts precedent.

"We don't want to toss traditional marriage into the trash heap of history for the sake of a social experiment," Hartzler said.

However, the concept of a "traditional" marriage is somewhat nebulous.

Marriage as a holy sacrament didn't develop in the Christian world until the medieval period.

And although the legal requirement that the marriage contract be entered into by consenting parties is centuries old, that consent didn't always come from prospective spouses. Rather, families often negotiated marriages for political or economic gain.

Marriage as an equal partnership between spouses is also a relatively modern development. Through most of Western history, the wife was subservient to the husband, who held nearly complete control over his spouse's person and property.

Roger Lancaster, an anthropology professor at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., and an author on the subject, says marriage is a constantly changing institution.

"It is very difficult to identify any features that are timeless or unchanging in it," Lancaster said. "Attempts to fast-freeze it into one form or another will probably fail."

No-fault divorce

One of the biggest recent changes to the institution occurred in the last 40 years with the rise of no-fault divorce, which has drastically increased the percentage of marriages that fail. Lancaster says no-fault divorce is a outgrowth of the idea that marriage requires individual consent with love as its basis. Prior to no-fault divorce, spouses had to show some cause for ending the marriage, like adultery or physical or mental abuse.

"In a market economy, contracts are freely entered -- and exited," Lancaster said. "If men and women marry for love, and this is the modern idea, they'll probably also divorce when they fall out of love."

That same-sex marriage is an issue for political and social discourse at all stems from the growing tolerance in society for homosexuals.

Dr. Rick Althaus, a political science professor at Southeast Missouri State University, says there could come a point when the drive to stop same-sex marriages fizzles out.

"Opinion polls tell us Americans as a whole are becoming more comfortable with, or at least less threatened by, gay people," Althaus said. "When you see 'Will and Grace' every week on TV and see likable gay characters, it diffuses some of that animosity."

State Rep. Kevin Engler, who sponsored the legislation that put the proposed amendment on the Missouri ballot, says tolerance has its limits.

"We want to be tolerant of different lifestyles and not be condemning," said Engler, R-Farmington. "But if we are truly going to set the foundation for the family unit, we have to ask: At what point does tolerance become a hindrance?"

Engler added that heterosexual couples could do a much better job of producing stable, nurturing families.

Jeff Wunrow, director of the statewide gay rights advocacy group PROMO, says the push for same-sex marriage is in part driven by the desire for acceptance.

"It is almost a universal value of two people that want to be committed to each other," Wunrow said. "It is a special relationship."

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