May 24, 2008

Gays, God, and Government: Self-righteousness in the State Capitols

... by Walter Brasch

The mantra of almost all conservatives—it makes no difference what political party they belong to—is to keep government out of their lives. But, they don’t mind government interference when it plays to their biases and bigotry.

For example, it’s perfectly acceptable for the government to enter one’s bedroom if the purpose is to ban homosexual activity and—horrors!—gay marriage. During the election campaign of 2004, a year after the Texas Supreme Court struck down a state law against sodomy, the president of the United States, several times citing “activist judges” as a problem, declared he wanted a constitutional amendment “to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever [and] to protect marriage in America.” It would be only the 28th amendment since 1789, and would be the equal to amendments abolishing slavery, and protecting free expression, religious freedom, due process, and the rights of all citizens, including women, to vote.

Almost exactly four years later, with not much happening to change the U.S. Constitution, George W. Bush’s call to arms was heard in Pennsylvania. Political conservatives and religious fundamentalists thought the existing state law against same-sex marriage was vulnerable to a constitutional challenge, and wanted something more permanent—a constitutional amendment to “preserve” the sanctity of marriage.

Having heard the call—and an opportunity to score with his constituents— State Sen. John Gordner unleashed his horse and charged into battle, thrusting his sword of righteousness into every hole that could allow for same-sex marriage. The proposed amendment sailed through the judiciary and appropriations committees, of which Gordner is a member, and onto the Senate floor where the Republican-dominated Senate was expected to pass it and forever preserve what they believe is the sanctity of marriage.

“We do not want to take away any existing rights that gay and lesbian partners have,” said the senator from Pennsylvania’s rural northeast. Nonsense, said Sen. Vincent Fumo of Philadelphia. “When you enter this language into the Constitution, you’re begging to overthrow Devlin and everything else,” said Fumo. Devlin v. Philadelphia assured that same-sex rights were permissible as long as there was nothing to create a “functional equivalent of marriage.” A constitutional amendment could eliminate all benefits, Fumo pointed out. With tongue-in-cheek reasoning, Fumo thrust home his concern by suggesting an amendment to the proposed amendment. If same-sex marriage destroys the institution of marriage, why not ban all divorce, he suggested.

As a windstorm of protests emerged, the senators ran for the shelter of political expediency. Since the state’s House of Representatives probably wouldn’t waste its time on such an outrageous display of public pandering, the Senate tabled the bill and blamed the House. This is the political “two-step.” The senators could continue to spout moral and religious bigotry while blaming some else for the problem.

A week after the Pennsylvania Senate’s blunderbusses blew up in their face, California became the second state, after Massachusetts, to throw out a state law against same-sex marriage. California’s law was passed in 2000 by 61 percent of the voters.

In an overview of the issue, Chief Justice Ronald M. George, a Republican, noted, “[An] individual’s capacity to establish a loving and long-term committed relationship with another person and responsibly to care for and raise children does not depend upon the individual's sexual orientation.” In his majority opinion, George cited a 1948 California case that overturned a law that banned interracial marriage. “An individual's sexual orientation—like a person’s race or gender— does not constitute a legitimate basis upon which to deny or withhold legal rights,” he wrote.

This is not an activist/liberal court that conservatives so frequently blame for what they see as all of the nation’s problems. “The decision was a bold surprise from a moderately conservative, Republican-dominated court that legal scholars have long dubbed ‘cautious,’” noted the Los Angeles Times.

California’s religious right and conservative movements aren’t bending over and taking their defeats. They’re gathering signatures to place onto the November ballot a constitutional amendment to forbid same-sex marriage. That amendment would be more powerful than any state law. Ironically, such a constitutional amendment may be unconstitutional.

Nevertheless, twenty-six states now have laws that ban same-sex marriage, and Florida already has a proposed constitutional amendment ready for the November election. For conservatives, apparently, there isn’t enough governmental intrusion when it comes to continuing bigotry.

[Walter Brasch is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University and president of the Pennsylvania Press Club. His latest book is Sinking the Ship of State: The Presidency of George W. Bush, available through You may contact Brasch at or through his website at: Rosemary R. Brasch assisted on this column]

Posted by Walter Brasch at May 24, 2008 12:17 AM | Guest Writings | Technorati links |