Columns » Ernest Dumas

Concerning marriage


In a completely rational world, a person who walked into a voting booth and pondered whether to vote for or against a proposal with the beguilingly simple name "An Amendment Concerning Marriage" would suspect that it was not so simple at all — after wondering why a constitution should be concerned at all with controlling the private relationships of citizens. The suspicion would be exactly right with the proposed amendment that is supposed to outlaw same-sex marriage in Arkansas but which does a whole lot more. All the little details are for lawyers to haggle over and for thousands of others to rue the sad circumstances that those little details bequeathed them. But the Amendment Concerning Marriage does have one uncomplicated purpose. The voter is expected to understand that if he loathes homosexual men and women this is the way to express it. The others who will be hurt are just collateral damage as the military planners say and hardly more deserving of the rights and privileges of our perfect social order than gays and lesbians. Section 1 Section 1 of the amendment prohibits the state legislature from ever considering giving the right to marry to any couple except a man and a woman, but two following sections have another purpose besides denying marital happiness to homosexual couples. They would deny any of the legal benefits conferred on married people to any unmarried couple, no matter their sex or domestic relationship. That apparently was intended to make forever unlawful even the civil unions that many people find acceptable, but it would go much further than that. The language is similar to an amendment that is proposed inUtah. There, the three candidates for attorney general — Republican, Democrat and Libertarian — recently issued a joint statement of opposition. They said the amendment went far beyond preventing the marriage of homosexuals and would prove "unnecessarily hurtful" to many people and their families and lead to many years of lawsuits to settle what the vague language meant. Attorneys for the Arkansas amendment couldn’t agree at a recent news conference on what it meant. But it pretty obviously means that none of the usual domestic partnership rights could be enjoyed by any couple other than a man and a woman who got a license and married. It would nullify the benefit packages, including medical insurance, that some employers confer on the domestic partners of their workers Insofar as it is in the power of the government in any way whatsoever to deny them, within the borders of Arkansas satisfaction and happiness are not to be enjoyed by any pair of people except those who are in the traditional, government-sanctioned married relationship — oh, with one exception: people who are united in a common-law marriage that was recognized in another state. Native Arkansans, however, could not be so blessed. Here are some of the rights that would be denied them: the right to hospital visitation of a partner or a partner’s child; decision-making in medical emergencies; inheritance if a partner does not have a valid will; joint insurance policies for home, health or automobiles; sick or bereavement leave for a partner’s illness or death; choosing a final resting place for a partner; wrongful death benefits; joint child custody; visitation, adoption or foster care; coverage of a spouse under Medicare or Social Security; filing joint tax returns; veterans’ discounts for education, medical care and home loans; obtaining protective orders from Arkansas courts against domestic violence. When you get a chance to punish people who are different and whom you don’t like, it’s hard to know where to stop. We have a sorry history in this country on the aberrant occasions when we have chosen to use our laws to smash people rather than lift them up. The burden of American constitutional history has been to expand rights rather than to deny them. This will be the fourth occasion in our own state’s history when we changed the constitution to deny people rights rather than to grant them. Nearly 40 years after we amended our constitution to deny equal citizenship to blacks, we voted to undo it. There will come a day, too, to rue the "Amendment Concerning Marriage" if the Supreme Court decides that it is not so confusing and misleading that it should be removed from the ballot and the voters ratify it. We have a shameful history of using the marriage laws to persecute minorities. Not so long ago, all but nine states outlawed interracial marriages. Like eating shellfish or pork, planting two crops on the same plot and wearing garments made of more than one kind of fiber, an interracial marriage was considered by some religious groups to be an abomination forbidden by God. A century ago, by acts of state law, thousands of Mormons were imprisoned for bigamy and hundreds of thousands of Mormons, regardless of their own marital status, were denied the vote and other privileges because the church officially permitted men to have more than one wife. When men rush to deny happiness and rewards to the disowned, their children are left to repent one by one. That will be the case with the Amendment Concerning Marriage.

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