Is Marriage a Civil Right?

Is Marriage a Civil Right?

By Matt Kinnaman
March 2, 2004

   Compelled by the question of whether everyone is being treated fairly in Massachusetts , I attended the Constitutional Convention in Boston on February 11. Outside on Beacon Hill I spoke with supporters of same-sex marriage, one of whom told me I thought he was a second-class person. I told him he was a first-class person, and he thanked me. And that’s the truth—I think that supporters of same-sex marriage are first-class citizens. I have no idea what the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court is talking about when it claims that traditional marriage creates second-class citizens out of those who don’t fit its parameters.

   I thought that, under the law, everyone is equal, regardless of what institutions they belong to. So what do we do about those who want to enter the institution of marriage, even though they don’t fit its definition? Are we denying them their civil rights, thus making them second-class citizens?

   For example, The General Court of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts , also known as our state legislature, is an institution, and membership in it is not a civil right. Membership in the legislature is only available to those who satisfy particular criteria, not to all those who have opinions on legislative matters and would love a chance to vote on pending bills. By definition, the Massachusetts legislature is a closed, exclusionary institution. It’s fair to ask: Is barring those who would love to be senators or representatives from membership in the Massachusetts state house a violation of their civil rights?

   If the answer is yes, then all barriers to exclusion, including elections, should be dropped, and anyone who wants to be a member of the legislature should be allowed to join. But, if the answer is no, then our definition of “civil rights” must be independent of our right to membership in institutions, and as such, our duly elected senators and representatives should take a new look at the issue of same-sex marriage.

   The American founding was characterized by clear thinking about ordered liberty. Today in America , chaos reigns. Judges and mayors are ignoring the law, and the will of the people, while imagining that they themselves, along with supporters of same-sex marriage, are compatriots of those who stood against slavery and communism.

   The comparison is not accurate. Their struggle is not the same. Slaves were denied their civil rights. So were those who lived under communism. Civil rights are, as correctly recognized in the American founding, inalienable. They can neither be given by government, nor rightfully taken away. These rights are those which slaves, and all subjects of tyranny, were denied: free speech, the free exercise of religion, a free press, the right to peaceably assemble, the right to vote, to be free from unlawful intrusions of government on their persons or property, and the right to fair and equal treatment under the law in all other matters mentioned in the Constitution and its amendments.

   The same-sex marriage advocates who today congratulate themselves as freedom fighters in the tradition of Abraham Lincoln, Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Pope John Paul, Gandhi, and Lech Walesa are misconstruing the significance of what these leaders accomplished in the face of actual tyranny. Whether they mean to or not, the gay marriage movement is confusing the civil rights struggles against slavery, racism, and totalitarianism with something very different—their desire to redesign history’s most important cultural institution in a manner that will eventually render it meaningless.

   Those who contend that marriage is a civil right must contend with additional questions. Is graduation from school a civil right? Is a government job? How about being a son, or a daughter, an uncle, or an aunt? What about a graduate degree? Employment? Housing? Health? Business ownership? A driver’s license? Membership in the National Organization of Women, the NBA, the PTA, the AARP, the Priesthood?

   Just as it is with these institutions and definitions, so it is with marriage—each one is defined with exclusions in place, and once it becomes anything we want it to be, it is nothing at all. Marriage is an institution, not a civil right. It has nothing to do with first- or second-class citizenship. Marriage either has an enduring, unchanging definition, or it will have no definition. When the Constitutional Convention reconvenes March 11, let’s hope that our legislators have the courage to address this honestly.


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