issue guide: Same Sex Marriage
In November 2003, a Massachusetts’ Supreme Court decision legitimizing gay marriages sparked a nationwide debate that had same-sex couples running to the altar and state governments scrambling to define who could and who could not get hitched. President Bush brought the debate to DC by endorsing a change to the Constitution that would outlaw same-sex marriages. So far there’s been more bark than bite to the national debate, with the status of DC's position on gay marriages little altered since '03. But at the state level, the pandora’s box of same-sex marriages was flung wide open; while most states immediately moved to limit or ban same-sex marriage, a growing number inched toward approval of same-sex partnerships and marriages.
What the Debate's About
What the debate is not about is whether same-sex couples can get married in a religious ceremony; that’s out of the states’ hands and no one’s really talking about it. It is about civic marriages and the rights and benefits states give a couple when they say “I do.”
The arguments for allowing gay marriage look at the things married couples get that unmarried couples don’t, such as Social Security benefits and hospital visitation rights, as well as the “expressive value” of being able to say “we’re married,” which has more to do with principle than goods you can grasp. Opponents point out that gay couples can reap the same benefits as married couples using other civil laws besides marriage, and that protecting the heterosexuality of marriage has both moral and societal perks.
Sifting through the material benefits of being married can be a messy matter. In 2004, the GAO (General Accounting Office) found 1,138 national laws where it mattered if you were married or not (each state also has laws of its own that benefit wedded couples). Bush and his supporters on this issue stress that they are not trying to stop gay couples from living together. They say private contracts - name changes, wills, health proxies and such - can give gay couples nearly all benefits that the law gives straight ones.
While some critics of gay marriage don’t seem to have an interest in denying benefits to gay couples, they are concerned with both the moral and societal harm they say would come with gay marriages. Here, the “evidence” on both sides is murky, each side pointing to studies that prove the positive or negative impact of letting gay couples form state-approved families. Gay couples also warn about the moral and societal harm of not permitting same-sex marriages, saying that to do so denies equality to gay citizens - both legally and symbolically.
Where Things Stand Now
With little chance the current Congress would move to ban same sex marriage on a nationwide basis, the gay marriage debate continues to be purely a state-level affair. While most states have banned same sex marriage - either by law or as part of their constitution - six states have now sanctioned same sex nuptials, and even more have given limited rights to same sex couples.
Updated June, 2009
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