Opinion by Scott Shackelford
Shackelford is a former editorial page editor for a Northwest Arkansas newspaper. He lives in Fayetteville.
Editor's note: Opinions, commentary and other essays posted in this space are wholly the view of the author(s). They may or may not represent the opinion of the owners of The City Wire.
America – the way I grew up thinking of America – is supposed to be a continually unfolding story where everyone has an equal opportunity to achieve their heart’s desire on a magnificent scale.
Real, legitimate equality is something our country has struggled with time and again. Be it religion, race, age, physical handicap, or efforts down through the centuries to prevent a person’s right to participate in the democratic process, Americans have battled entitlement at every turn, from fighting to end slavery to extending voting rights to women.
But time has a way of breaking down those institutional barriers opponents try to build up. It is true that common sense may not win those first battles, but it does usually win the war. Thank goodness – or else we would still be walking around believing the Earth is flat, and wondering if human flight is possible.
Our society’s ongoing debate over same-sex marriage is another such struggle.
Making headlines once again, this always controversial topic could eventually be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court thanks to a recent ruling by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. The ruling upholds a lower court’s declaration that California voter’s 2008 decision to ban same-sex marriage is unconstitutional. According to the court, the ban violates the Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
“All that Proposition 8 accomplished was to take away from same-sex couples the right to be granted marriage licenses and thus legally to use the designation ‘marriage,’” Judge Stephen Reinhardt wrote in this week’s decision. “Proposition 8 serves no purpose, and has no effect, other than to lessen the status and human dignity of gay men and lesbians in California.”
Six states, plus the District of Columbia, allow same-sex marriage, and reports tag Washington State as being next in line. For the record, Arkansans adopted a constitutional amendment eight years ago that defines marriage as a union between one man and one woman.
Hopefully we can agree that these days our nation has many serious problems to deal with. Various subjects come to mind, whether it be a seemingly untamable federal deficit, a recalcitrant Congress incapable of decisive action, a tax code that requires revision, a want for immigration reform, an anemic housing market, a much too healthy unemployment rate, and a group of Super PACs (led by a handful of extremely wealthy individuals) who are using the 2010 Citizens United ruling to purchase this year’s presidential election.
These public policies qualify as legitimate worries. The prospect of same-sex marriage, however, does not – or at least it should not. And while taking sides could certainly cost a politician votes, by no means should it keep the electorate up nights.
Mind you, it ought to be the right of every house of worship to decide its membership, as well as those who will participate in its numerous religious ceremonies, including marriage. If the Catholic church, the Baptist church, and so forth have no wish to sanction same-sex marriage on their premises, they should not be forced to.
But inside our public edifices, the ones built with public money and standing atop public lands and run by public employees, the rules should be different. Here, people should be required to adhere to a basic set of laws that treat us, and see us, in the same light.
A same-sex marriage ban like California’s Proposition 8 fails that test. It seems to say that a specific minority does not deserve the same legal protections readily available to everybody else. It says, in effect, that same-sex couples do not deserve full access to the American dream – only most of it.
Surely efforts to block equality can have nothing to do with protecting the sanctity of marriage – not in a country where the divorce rate among straight couples has been flirting with the 50% mark for years. Or maybe some folks just find it easier to make sense of a world where there must always be obstacles like Proposition 8, always a vague us against them topic to be merrily batted around.
Funny thing is, we don’t have to be this way. We need not spend our lives sharpening verbal spears and building impregnable walls of legality between us. We really could use our waking hours in an effort to build bridges – or, if that is too difficult, by simply not standing in the way of someone else’s efforts to lead a richer life.
It may very well take decades for same-sex couples to win equal rights in regards to marriage. But should such a reality ever come to pass, this turn of events will not destroy our churches and families. Instead, phrases like “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” will ring just a little truer to a few more of our fellow Americans.
Best of all, acceptance of what appears to be a long-term inevitability (if the ongoing expansion of human rights around the world is any indication) would actually give us one less thing to argue about, something we could all surely benefit from these days.
Worrying so mightily over preconceived notions of what some citizens deserve and others do not when it comes to our individual private lives is a wonderful waste of willpower. America and Americans are so much better than that.