Culture War Casualties

Eleven referenda have shamefully writen discrimination into state constitutions

Gay Americans watched the election returns with bated breath on Nov. 2, hoping to see at least some signs of tolerance in an electorate which has of late appeared increasingly hostile to their identities and lifestyle. Yet for all their hopes, the populations of 11 states—Arkansas, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon and Utah—resoundingly stamped their disapproval earlier this month, amending their constitutions to define marriage exclusively as a union between a man and a woman. Of the 11 states, all but four implicitly ban civil unions as well. Now that the brunt of election hand-wringing has passed, the sad reality of these amendments begins to sink in.

We do, of course, respect the democratic process; marriage is a state matter, and citizens have the right to vote their conscience and determine how their state defines civil marriage. We do not, however, respect the efforts of politicians to dirty this issue—one that affects the life and liberty of millions of Americans on a fundamental level—by playing to prejudices and potentially misleading the voter with ulterior electoral motives. The ballot questions in each state varied naturally, but in a majority of these states the wording was ambiguous enough to include the banning of rights imparted to same-sex couples in civil unions in addition to marriage. This in effect placed two questions before the voter in a single question, something illegal in several of the states. Voters in some states who wished only to establish their understanding of “marriage” may have unwittingly—and unwillingly—denied the basic civil rights enjoyed by straight couples to gay couples. Furthermore, because these referenda affected state constitutions, judicial review by state courts to salvage those rights may be impossible.

Perhaps worse than any sleight of hand in the wording of the ballot questions is the fact that the issue seems part of an orchestrated Republican ploy to summon evangelical voters to the polls in greater numbers in swing states such as Arkansas, Michigan, Ohio and Oregon. It appears that these “values” voters may well have handed George W. Bush the election, but at a cost that transcends a single political victory. The constitutions of 11 states now bear the writ of discrimination, formalized in parchment, despite the fact that gay marriage was unlikely to be made legal in those states in the foreseeable future.

Furthermore, it seems the Bush campaign capitalized on this issue, using it to divert attention from his weaknesses—such as the economy, the rising cost of health care, and the war in Iraq. Bush brought out traditional conservative voters in droves with promises of protecting the sanctity of marriage with an amendment to the federal constitution, yet his party cannot possibly deliver this promise on the national scale. Republicans pushed this legislation through Congress months ago knowing full well it would fail so as to produce a surge in turnout of outraged evangelical voters. No doubt there are many on the religious right who hold fast to precious beliefs and values, but the leadership of the Republican Party’s use of this issue is morally bankrupt—exploiting voters’ unfounded fears and prejudices for the sake of electoral victory.

It is also worth noting that, for all of the talk of defending the sanctity of marriage—by barring same-sex couples from the civil rights contained therein—several of the states which voted to ban gay marriage have among the highest divorce rates in the country. Based on 2003’s Census Bureau figures, America’s favorite “values” sinkhole and bastion of Godless hedonism—Massachusetts—has the lowest divorce rate in the country.

In any event, we cannot endorse the formal denial of civil rights and benefits afforded to others—call it marriage, civil union or any other name. Neither can we condone the perpetuation of a divisive culture war whose battles are all too staged, spurred by transparent and cynical ploys to deceive voters and distract attention from pressing issues of national concern. While politicos do their best to fuel America’s supposedly dire and disquieting culture war, a real war rages on in the Middle East.