From an ingenious system of checks and balances, to freedom of religion and speech, the Constitution of the United States guarantees all that has enabled the American experiment to continue in perpetuity, so far, for more than two centuries. Since its ratification in 1787, and since the ratification of the first 10 amendments, known as the Bill of Rights, in1791, this founding document has been amended 17 times, often to clarify the workings of the republic. This was done once to prohibit alcohol consumption, and once to repeal that same amendment, but most notably to expand the definition of the body politic for whom the preamble’s felicitously named “Blessings of Liberty” must be secured.
Last week, a group of respected clergymen and scholars inaugurated a movement to amend the Constitution for the 28th time not to codify governmental procedure, not to widen the application of political liberty, but to define matrimony in these United States as being “a union of a man and a woman.” The amendment proposed by the Alliance for Marriage would state: “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.”
While the Bible, Webster’s and common law (not to mention common sense) hold marriage to be the union of a man and a woman, it is bitterly true that this fact of life has come under assault by homosexual activists seeking to legalize “same-sex marriage” through judicial fiat. From Hawaii to Alaska to California, they have had mixed success, winning stunning court victories that have subsequently (and thankfully) been nullified at the ballot box. Only Vermont, whose state constitution resists amendment, has, under judicial order, legalized “civil union,” an arrangement that approximates same-sex marriage.
This latest phase of the sexual revolution is the attempt to stretch a contemporary understanding of “tolerance” to include the legal and social assimilation of behaviors once deemed marriage. In the past decade, 34 states have enacted laws to deny recognition to same-sex marriage, while Congress has passed the Defense of Marriage Act, 1996 legislation that federally defines marriage as a heterosexual union, and further exempts any state from having to recognize any other state’s same-sex marriage.
Needless to say, the Constitution doesn’t mention this uniquely postmodern cause. Should it? Fearing the continuing threat from socially liberal judges, who, for example, could declare the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional, amendment proponents say yes. According to Alliance board member and Princeton professor Robert P. George writing in National Review, “The amendment is intended to return the debate over the legal status of marriage to the American people where it belongs.”
Mr. George is right. The debate does belong to the American people, not to judges who legislate from the bench. But this particular strategy to safeguard marriage by enshrining it in an amendment, however nobly intended, would seem to be misguided. While marriage is a building block of civilization that has been dangerously undermined, it should not fall to our guide to governance to shore it up. The Constitution may foster this republic, but it is too much to expect it to settle our most fundamental moral and behavioral questions.