Last week I was in Anchorage for a meeting and a friend of mine was the keynote speaker. He is from Baltimore and we worked together in Washington, D.C. During the course of our catching up on the details of life, we turned to the current state of affairs within our work and environment. He informed me that the Maryland State Senate had voted in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage and that the legislation was going before the House.
Many religious leaders uphold the definition of marriage as being between one man and one woman as presented in an open letter last December entitled, “The Protection of Marriage: A Shared Commitment”. These leaders represented the Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Evangelical, Jewish, Lutheran, Mormon, Orthodox, Pentecostal and Sikh communities in the United States. Within my faith tradition, we look to Christ who responded to a question about marriage by saying, “Have you not read that from the beginning the Creator created them male and female and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and his mother and unite with his wife, and the two will be one flesh’? So it is that they are no longer two, but one flesh.” (Matthew 19:4-6) Marriage is rooted in the natural order of man and woman as well as in their identity as human persons as they were created.
In today’s society, everyone has a right to love whoever they want to love. Everyone has a right to be with whomever they would like. But, from my perspective, I do not believe that there is a right to change the definition of marriage. The foundation of human rights is not in the mere will of human beings, the community or government, but human rights are rooted in the dignity of the human person. These rights are inalienable, universal, and sacred. Thomas Jefferson indicated in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident…” Today, it seems that truths are not as “self-evident” as they once were. For some, the language of ‘civil rights’ has been repackaged and applied to the same-sex marriage debate; but there is no analogy between the movement today to redefine marriage and the African-American civil rights movement of the 1960’s. What is at risk is not “civil rights” but marriage itself. Civil rights are not being denied; unfortunately, marriage is being manipulated. The debate about same-sex marriage has become a hot topic and I believe that there are many ways to provide and keep basic rights and the equal dignity of persons, but sacrificing marriage is not one of them.
There have always been restrictions placed on marriage. For example, a father cannot marry his daughter and an adult cannot marry a minor. These protections recognize the unique good of marriage. An attempt to redefine marriage empties it of its meaning and its intrinsic value. A man cannot give to (or receive from) another man, nor can a woman give to another woman, what spouses uniquely give to and receive from each other. The bodies of a man and a woman show plainly the deeper truth that their entire persons are for the other, for a person different than their own self. The wonderful gift of marriage is the ability to have children.
Unfortunately, within the argument for same-sex marriage, the child has often become a pawn or instrument at the expense of adult wishes. A child deserves the love of a father and a mother and to learn what it means to be either a man or a woman. To claim that children are adaptable and that same-sex marriage would have no effect on them indicates that the child is quickly dismissed in order to focus instead on adult desires.
Recently, President Barack Obama instructed the Justice Department not to defend sections of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in the current court cases where it is being challenged because it is considered sexual orientation discrimination. However, DOMA was passed in 1996 with bipartisan support and by wide margins (342-67 in the House and 85-14 in the Senate) and was signed into law by President Bill Clinton.
Defending marriage as being between a man and a woman is in no way meant to demean members of the gay and lesbian community — they are our brothers and sisters. The defense of marriage is an urgent necessity to ensure the truth of spousal love, the wellbeing of children, and the common good of society.
The Maryland State House decided to send the bill back to committee and they will not be voting on it this year. What is evident is that much more discussion and debate will take place in understanding the meaning of marriage.
• Burns is the Roman Catholic Bishop of the Diocese of Juneau and Southeast Alaska.