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Should a marriage amendment also ban civil unions?

Editor’s note: This is the third story in a series examining the national debate over same-sex “marriage.” The series will appear in Baptist Press each Friday.

Updated April 8, 2004

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–When Massachusetts’ highest court said the state must legalize same-sex “marriage,” social conservatives were quick to voice their support for a constitutional amendment protecting the traditional definition of marriage.

But now that the dust has settled, other questions have surfaced. What should an amendment say? Should it only ban same-sex “marriage”? Or should it also ban Vermont-type civil unions? What is most politically feasible? Should politics even be considered?

Several pro-family organizations have backed the current version of the Federal Marriage Amendment, which has been introduced in Congress and bans same-sex “marriage” while, supporters say, leaving the issue of civil unions up to each individual state’s legislators. Among its supporters are Family Research Council, Focus on the Family and the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission.

Concerned Women for American opposes the Federal Marriage Amendment — saying it doesn’t go far enough — and has proposed an alternative version, the Institution of Marriage Amendment. It would explicitly ban the government recognition of all forms of same-sex contracts — civil unions and domestic partnerships included.

Much of the divide concerns the issue of practicality: Some say that a strongly-worded amendment cannot pass Congress. Already, the current version has little support from congressional Democrats.

“The reality is that we do live in a very political system, and the goal is to pass what we can,” said Ron Crews, president of the Massachusetts Family Institute, an organization that is in the thick of the national debate.

An ordained Evangelical Presbyterian minister and a former Georgia state legislator, he said he learned a lot in his political days.

“I was willing to take back ground that had been lost yard by yard rather than believing that I had to get a touchdown on the first throw,” he told Baptist Press. “I think that there’s wisdom in that. We didn’t get this way overnight, and we’re not going to change it overnight.”

Only two sentences, the Senate version of the Federal Marriage Amendment states: “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution, nor the constitution of any State, shall be construed to require that marriage or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon any union other than the union of a man and a woman.”

Conservatives look at the amendment and wonder why anyone wouldn’t support it. But the nation’s founding fathers set the bar high for amending the Constitution, and so far the road toward passage appears tough. The Democratic National Committee opposes it, as does Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D.

President Bush supports an amendment and has indicated the language of the Federal Marriage Amendment is appealing. But he has not said whether he could support it in its current form.

An amendment needs approval by two-thirds of the House and Senate, so support from Democrats is necessary. After passing the House and Senate it would need ratification by three-fourths of the states.

The lack of support for the current amendment leaves some conservatives wondering how it will pass if it is strengthened.

Others, though, believe it is doable. Shortly after Bush endorsed an amendment, Concerned Women for America and the Campaign for California Families released statements, thanking Bush for wanting to protect marriage but saying they believed an amendment should also ban civil unions. Bush said the issue of civil unions should be left up to the states.

“Concerned Women for America is grateful to President Bush for speaking out in favor of the integrity of marriage,” a CWA statement read. “But we regret that we cannot support the defective remedy he has chosen.”

CWA argues that if conservatives are going to go through the trouble of passing an amendment, they might as well get it right.

“Amending the U.S. Constitution is necessarily and understandably a rigorous task,” the organization argues. “If a marriage amendment is ratified, there will not be another. CWA believes that an amendment to preserve marriage should do more than preserve it in name only.”

For the most part, pro-family organizations seem unified. After Bush’s announcement some 70 pro-family leaders issued a statement, praising Bush for his “courage” and pledging their support.

The February letter included such names as Franklin Graham, James Dobson, Jerry Falwell, Richard Land, Charles Colson, Tony Perkins and D. James Kennedy. In addition to Land it was also signed by four other Southern Baptist leaders, including Morris H. Chapman, president of the SBC Executive Committee.

“Mr. President, we applaud your courage,” the letter read. “There have been times in our history when presidents have been called upon to make difficult decisions to protect the balance of power in our government. Abraham Lincoln did this when he refused to recognize the Constitutional precedent of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision. We think you are making just such a stand in opposing what we view as runaway courts. Thank you, sir, for standing with the people and for doing what is right.”

Land rejects the notion that principle must be compromised in order to pass an amendment. Courts, and not state legislatures, have been the main culprit in the advancement of civil unions and same-sex “marriage,” he noted. Vermont’s highest court ordered the legislature to create civil unions, while Massachusetts’ court gave the state legislature 180 days to find a remedy to create same-sex “marriages.”

“As long as pragmatism does not involve compromise with the truth, we’re not compromising the truth,” Land said. “We’re not doing something immoral. We’re not agreeing to civil unions in order to get a Federal Marriage Amendment. We’re leaving that to the elected representatives of each state.”

Some conservatives are fearful of a repeat of what happened following the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling when pro-lifers were divided over a strategy. In the end, nothing was passed.

But while conservatives are debating the importance of an amendment banning civil unions, homosexual activists are saying the current language already bans them. Writing in the magazine Advocate, homosexual activist Andrew Sullivan argued that the second sentence of the Federal Marriage Amendment would “make it unconstitutional for a state or federal law to give any benefits whatsoever to gay couples.”

For this reason Matt Daniels, president of the Alliance for Marriage — which first proposed the amendment — said he is making minor changes so it will be clear that civil unions passed by legislatures are not banned, according to The Washington Post.

Former Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, a supporter of the Federal Marriage Amendment as it is written, has warned conservatives about the consequences of remaining divided.

“The history of the effort to obtain a constitutional amendment relating to abortion is instructive,” he wrote in a Wall Street Journal commentary in 2001. “There was a chance to get an amendment overturning Roe v. Wade and returning the issue to the state legislatures. Purists opposed to abortion would not settle for that. They demanded an amendment prohibiting abortion altogether. The result was that they got nothing. An amendment against judicial validation of same-sex marriages would similarly be doomed by pressing for too much.”

Land and Focus on the Family’s Glenn Stanton say there is much to be learned by studying the debate over slavery. Stanton said that William Wilberforce (1759-1833), who helped put an end to the slave trade, compromised.

“He didn’t get everything that he wanted, but the ages know him as a hero of the faith, standing against something that is very wrong,” Stanton said.

Abraham Lincoln, Land said, had both sides of the slavery debate upset. The abolitionists were disappointed because Lincoln did not campaign on a platform for the immediate abolition of slavery, he said.

“He called slavery evil. He said this country could not long survive half free and half slave,” Land said. “… But he campaigned on a platform of no extension of slavery and the eventual abolition of slavery.

“Of course, slavery ultimately ended two years after his election. If he had campaigned on a platform of immediate abolition, he would have lost.”

Lincoln did not compromise with evil, Land said, because he did not allow slavery to advance.

“We should not make the perfect the enemy of the good,” Land said. “That’s the principle that should guide us in public policy.”

For more information about the debate over same-sex “marriage,” visit

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  • Michael Foust