In a statement opposing the Marriage Protection Amendment debated in Congress this week, Senator Edward Kennedy
said that "gay and lesbian couples deserve the same rights as married couples under state law" and dismissed the amendment
as "a wholly inappropriate effort to override state courts and to intrude into individuals' private lives."
How should those who disagree with Kennedy's position react to it? By explaining on the merits why they believe he's
wrong? Or by calling him names a "gay-loving fanatic," say, or an "immoral pervert"?
It's a no-brainer. Only a demagogue believes that the controversy over same-sex marriage can be improved by hurling
insults at those who radically want to change the meaning of matrimony. Even if you think they are wrong, there is no reason to
doubt that most Americans who favor legalizing gay and lesbian marriages consider it an issue of fairness and tolerance. Their
arguments should be challenged with facts and logic, not vitriol. Anyone who slandered Kennedy with slurs like those above
would be considered contemptible, and rightly so.
It is just as contemptible when the slurs and slander are hurled in the other direction.
"A vote for this amendment," Kennedy has said repeatedly, "is a vote for bigotry, pure and simple." Like so many on his side
of the debate, he insists that supporters of the marriage amendment are fanatics and haters knuckle-draggers from "the rabid
reactionary right" who want to "stain the Constitution with their language of bigotry," as he put it the last time the Senate took
up the issue. If you are strongly committed to the traditional understanding of marriage as the union of husband and wife, in
other words, you aren't just wrong you're evil. You aren't fit to debate with, only to demonize. Kennedy and his allies don't
want to consider your point of view, and they don't want anyone else considering it either. And they know that there is no
better way to make a viewpoint so toxic that decent Americans shun it than to portray it as the equivalent of racism and
But if it's "bigotry, pure and simple" not to want same-sex marriage to be forced on American society by a handful of
crusading courts, then among the bigots must be the large congressional majority 85 senators, 342 representatives who
passed the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, confirming that marriage in the United States is between members of the
opposite sex only and allowing states to deny recognition of same-sex marriages performed in other states. Former President
Bill Clinton must be a bigot too: He signed the bill into law.
The bigots must also include the dozens of American religious leaders who signed the Religious Coalition for Marriage
statement endorsing the marriage amendment. The list of signatories is remarkably ecumenical Roman Catholic cardinals,
Greek and Russian Orthodox primates, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals, rabbis, an apostle of
the Mormon church, the president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors, the editor of Christianity Today, and many
others. Bigots all, apparently.
Vastly more numerous are voters in the 19 states where constitutional amendments securing the definition of marriage have
been put on the ballot. "In every case," as President Bush observed this week, "the amendments were approved by decisive
majorities, with an average of 71 percent." All told, 45 of the 50 states either have adopted constitutional amendments or
enacted laws meant to keep the timeless meaning of marriage from being undone. If Kennedy is right, all those states, all those
lawmakers, all those voters should be despised as bigots.
But Kennedy isn't right.
It is not bigotry to insist that there is a good reason why marriage has existed in every known human society, and why it has
always involved the uniting of men and women. It is not bigotry to acknowledge what reams of scholarship confirm: Family
structure matters, and children are more likely to suffer problems when they are not raised by their married mothers and
fathers. It is not bigotry to resist the dishonest comparison of same-sex marriage to interracial marriage skin color has
nothing to do with wedlock, while sex is fundamental to it. And it is not bigotry to fear that a social change as radical as
same-sex marriage could lead to grave and unintended consequences, from the persecution of religious institutions to a growing
clamor for legalizing polygamy.
Pro, con, or undecided, Americans should be able to discuss something as serious as redefining marriage without resorting
to slander and ad hominem attacks. There are sincere, compassionate, and thoughtful people on both sides of this issue. How
can you tell who they are? They aren't the ones calling people bigots.