EDITORIAL: Use caution assigning motives in same-sex marriage debate

Jul. 05, 2013 @ 05:00 AM

Discrimination may vary between the eye of one beholder and another, but it’s often defined for everyone by the person who yells the loudest or carries the biggest stick.

In the case of the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in United States vs. Windsor, the court carried a pretty heavy club: with the ruling, the slimmest of majorities turned aside the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and declared unconstitutional legislation passed unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President Bill Clinton not long ago.

Without question, the court's decision has accelerated the legalization of gay marriage in every state. After the ruling, legally defining marriage as the union of one man and one woman is, according to the language of the majority of the court, unconstitutional.

It's not so much the decision that was surprising. The case dealt not directly with same-sex marriage but with the provision of federal benefits for legally married same-sex partners. The court's majority stated that equality and freedom are sacrosanct, which indeed they are. It's hard to argue that denying benefits in these cases isn’t discrimination.

What was surprising was the tone of the language in the court's arguments. The clear division reflects the chasm between the two sides in the debate, a chasm which will only grow unless we all watch our language in the same-sex marriage discussion, a discussion which will rage on with even greater fervor now.

When it comes to language, our Constitution doesn't have a lot to say about marriage. But over time, culture-influenced courts have been intervening to provide a definition and have, in the process, enlarged it to include marriage between same-sex couples. In the process, the volume has been turned up in the debate among the rest of us. Not all of the words have been pleasant.

In the Windsor case, Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out in his dissenting opinion that the majority is describing those who enacted DOMA — that's Congress and President Clinton — as vicious and mean-spirited.

"In the majority's telling, this story is black and white: Hate your neighbor [by supporting DOMA], or come along with us," he said.

Those words should be a warning to all of us as the debate continues: describing anyone on the side of traditional marriage as a “homophobe" who obviously hates gays doesn't find an answer to the question. Neither does assigning evil motives to those who favor the legalization of same-sex marriage in every state.

We shouldn't carry the heavy club the court put to use in its debate. If we do, the end of the argument — like the Supreme Court's — will be no more satisfying than in the case of Windsor.