Friday, February 10, 2012

The power of a word

This week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit ruled that California's Proposition 8 violated the U.S. Constitution in that it prohibited the use of the word "marriage" by same-sex couples who wish to enter into the same lifelong committed relationship as opposite-sex couples.

Discussion about the appropriateness of gay marriage has, and will, roil some religious institutions for decades. That is unlikely to change anytime soon. But the 9th Circuit does not judge matters of religion. It judges matters of law, and under the law, a word cannot be the property of one group of people but not another.

Most opposed to this ruling will argue that the 9th Circuit is an activist court running roughshod over American values. They believe the Constitution is broken. It is missing something and they want to amend it in ways unique in American history by including provisions that discriminate based on sexual orientation.

California Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom argues, however, that the 9th Circuit's ruling is actually a victory for the strict constructionist interpretation of the U.S. Constitution that most conservative groups say they favor. The Constitution does not allow any majority to walk over the rights of any minority.

Historically, the laws of both the state and the church have called lifelong-union contracts "marriage." It does not have to be that way. The state could leave the word "marriage" to churches and call all unions recorded in public records "domestic partnerships."

Whatever word is used, however, and whatever benefit and responsibility that the word accrues have to be available to all kinds of people.

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