Same-sex union divides 'marriage movement'

Posted: December 16, 2004

One-hundred and forty scholars, health-care professionals, clergy and public officials are releasing a statement today lauding the work of the grassroots "marriage movement" in helping stem the tide of family breakdown in America.

And they have reason to celebrate. Some damaging trends - such as divorce and out-of-wedlock births - are stabilizing or, in the case of teen pregnancy, declining. Research is pointing out programs that work, and why, enabling a more rational, persuasive public conversation.

"We want to show that the decline in marriage is not inevitable," says David Blankenhorn, president of the Institute for American Values and the driving force behind the statement and its 86 policy recommendations. "There's been a shift in the climate of ideas and some shift in behavior, and we want to underline that."

Unfortunately, the statement also underlines something else: The politicization - in fact, the polarization - of the marriage movement over gay marriage. The "big tent" so proudly proclaimed by this movement, bringing together liberals concerned with social welfare and conservatives concerned with maintaining traditional institutions, has been punctured over gay marriage, an issue all sides have consciously avoided in the past.

The document explicitly links same-sex marriage and family breakdown. Because of that, some notable pro-marriage activists, from both left and right, have declined to sign today's statement.

"We heterosexuals have enough on our plate to keep us occupied for the rest of our lives," says Mike McManus, founder of Marriage Savers. He declined to sign the statement even though it singles out for praise the clergy-led Community Marriage Policies, which he developed and has expanded to 190 congregations nationwide.

While acknowledging a diversity of views, the statement asserts, on the very first page, that "the current controversy over equal marriage rights for same-sex couples is the most important social policy debate of our generation." One of seven suggested goals is to "create forums for thoughtful examination" of policy solutions to the issue of same-sex unions.

The controversy raises this larger question: Does changing the definition of marriage to embrace homosexual unions threaten marriage as an institution? Or does all this distract from the real dangers of divorce, cohabitation and out-of-wedlock births?

It's impossible, Blankenhorn says, to talk about marriage these days without talking about gay marriage. Personally, he believes that changing the "public meaning" of an institution originally designed for male/female procreation and social stability could have a huge effect on all children.

Perhaps. But many of those who work to promote healthy marriages find the same-sex debate a monumental distraction. After all, the decline in marriage and the increase in the number of children born outside of wedlock - much more threatening trends - began in the 1960s, whereas Massachusetts began sanctioning gay marriage only in May of this year.

Divorce, too, is a much more pressing threat. The number of gays and lesbians who "marry" and raise children pales in comparison with the number of heterosexuals who give the United States what is probably the highest divorce rate in the world.

"In the states with marriage initiatives, including Oklahoma, where I'm working, gay marriage is never even mentioned as one of the challenges," says Theodora Ooms, senior policy analyst for the Center for Law and Social Policy, who also declined to sign.

"There are so many reasons why marriage is threatened. This is certainly not one."

As today's statement says, "For the first time in several generations, those working for the renewal of marriage in the United States may have the wind at their backs." Let's not kick up another storm to obstruct the journey.

Contact columnist Jane Eisner at 215-854-4530 or jeisner@phillynews.com. Read her recent work at http://go.philly.com/janeeisner.

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