Tuesday, November 25, 2003

The Book of Common Prayer stands alongside Shakespeare and the King James Bible as one of the great monuments of Elizabethan English, and therefore of the English language itself. For the Elizabethans gave us the most glorious period of the ever-fecund English tongue.

The prayer book’s service for the Solemnization of Marriage begins with these words, whose familiarity has never dimmed their force or reverence:

Dearly beloved, we are gathered together here in the sight of God, and in the face of this company, to join together this Man and this Woman in holy Matrimony.

The service goes on to note that marriage is “an honourable estate instituted of God” and is not “to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly; but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly, and in the fear of God.”

Now prepare for the swift comedown to Chief Justice Margaret Marshall’s prose as she explains, on behalf of the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, why civil marriage need no longer be limited to man and woman. It’s like taking an elevator down 40 floors in 20 seconds:

“In short, for all the joy and solemnity that normally attend a marriage, governing entrance to marriage is a licensing law.”

Her honor might be talking about obtaining a building permit or occupation license. “In Massachusetts,” she explains, “civil marriage is, and since pre-Colonial days has been, precisely what its name implies, a wholly secular institution.”

In short, don’t let all that joy and solemnity fool you. It’s just another civil procedure. Once that is understood, marriage can be anything the almighty state says it is, and may unite whatever two people it designates. (Gosh, why only two?)

Where civil marriage is concerned, the state now has superseded not only the deity but also the dictionary. Forget Webster’s or Black’s or the simple, everyday meaning of marriage. The Supreme Judicial Council of Massachusetts has overturned them all.

The chief justice’s approach to the law is clear enough, brutally clear: If homosexuals are denied certain rights under the traditional definition of marriage in Massachusetts, then change the definition and, hesto presto, justice is done.

Or as Humpty Dumpty told Alice in Lewis Carroll’s famous guide to Western jurisprudence, “Through the Looking Glass”: “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”

Whereupon little Alice, who had acquired some wisdom in her 7 years and 6 months, raised the obvious objection to that kind of logic: “The question is whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

But that is not the question at all, the Hon. Humpty Dumpty replied: “The question is, which is to be master — that’s all.”

The chief justice of Massachusetts’ highest court could not have put it more concisely. Her honor was not about to let a mere word, a mere concept, mere meaning, stand in her court’s way.

The question is which to be master, that’s all — words or those who use them (and abuse them). Lewis Carroll lived too soon; he would have been right at home in our current, looking-glass world.

Poor, politically incorrect Alice. Her mistake was to assume that words have a meaning of their own, an integrity that cannot be obliterated. Even by some exalted personage handing down the law from on high — and backed by all the king’s horses and all the king’s men.

Like Humpty Dumpty, the commonwealth of Massachusetts’ highest court now has declared itself superior to the meaning of words.

The court thought it was deciding a case about equal rights, not about the meaning of words. That is the root of its confusion. It might have done the sensible, moderate thing, shown a little respect for words and recommended that the Massachusetts Legislature confer whatever rights and benefits it saw fit on homosexual citizens seeking a new, legal relationship — but call it by a new, legal name: civil union. Instead, the court decided to redefine marriage.

That way, the court could give this form of marriage not only the benefits and responsibilities of the real thing, but also the connotations that marriage still has even in this permissive age — respectability, a sense of permanence, even a spiritual resonance. But such qualities are not easily transferred, even by judicial fiat.

Now we shall see, once again, who will be master — the Humpty Dumptys of the world or little Alice, an arbitrary court order or public opinion, judges or words. It may take a while, but something tells me Humpty Dumpty will again take a great fall.

One hopes it won’t take a constitutional amendment to correct this misjudgment; that most serious of steps should not be taken lightly but, yes, reverently, discreetly, advisedly, soberly and fearfully.

A constitutional amendment should be the last, not the first, resort of a free and responsible people. For words are holy things. No matter how much we try to de-sacralize them. That’s why this decision is a desecration — of language.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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