It’s a reform that would make a radical and revolutionary change to our whole social system. It would weaken the family structure, which is the basic unit of a healthy society. It would violate tradition, nature and the religious teachings of nearly every faith.
With Maine in the middle of its second same-sex marriage referendum in three years, these are familiar arguments, but the reform in question is not same-sex marriage. These points were made in 1884 by a professor, the Rev. H.M. Goodwin, in a famous monograph against giving women the right to vote. And for 140 years after our Constitution was ratified, that was the winning side of the argument.
We have been through this before. In 2009, Maine voters were asked to open the door to same-sex marriage, and they considered four referendums in a decade on whether to extend civil rights protections to people based on sexual orientation.
HISTORIC BREAKS WITH TRADITION
But it is a much older debate than that. Ever since our Constitution was written “in order to create a more perfect union” — not a perfect one — we have continually opened the door to full membership in the American family to those who had been left out before. From emancipation to women’s suffrage, workers’ rights, civil rights and voting rights, it has been the history of this country to extend legal protection to minorities, not to deny them.
And although these achievements are some of our proudest moments, something else is true. All of them were hard to do.
All of them required a break with tradition. All seemed at odds with nature and religious teaching.
Many people found these developments to be painful, but few Americans would want to turn back now. This ever-expanding idea of liberty and equality is really our most cherished tradition. That’s why we urge Mainers to vote “yes” on Question 1.
With the campaigns in full swing, Maine voters should shut out the noise and look again at the question before them and what it would and would not do:
“Do you want to allow the State of Maine to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples?”
This is clearly a question about the marriage license, a civil document issued by the government, and not the religious rite. This referendum would allow same-sex partners to enter a marriage contract that would protect them and their children. It does not require religious groups to recognize their unions any more than a church could be forced to accept a civil marriage witnessed by a notary.
Under our Constitution, churches set their own rules for their members and they are independent from the state’s. There have been many distortions and exaggerations put forward by the vote “no” campaign. They include unfounded claims that people could be sued for expressing their religious beliefs or that marriage between a man and a woman would be damaged or “redefined.”
The free exercise of religion is protected by the Consitution. Civil rights laws now on the books protect people from discrimination based on their sexual orientation. Both things will be true no matter how the marriage vote comes out next month. This vote cannot penalize religious practice or promote discrimination cases.
These arguments are false, but they are effective because they speak to an underlying truth.
A “yes” vote on Question 1 is a vote for change. It would represent a break with tradition. It conflicts with what has been done in the past.
Tradition is important, and honoring it does not make someone a bigot. It is right to be concerned about preserving family structures that protect children and create an environment that would give them the best chance to succeed.
And the traditionalists are right when they say the institution of marriage is in trouble. Too many children start their lives without the benefit of loving and supportive parents.
This affects their health, their performance in school, their employment prospects and eventually the choices they make about the kinds of families they will have. A movement that promoted marriage and supported parents would have a positive impact on society.
NOT THE ONLY VALUE
But mindlessly following tradition and denying marriage to same-sex couples does not come close to accomplishing that goal. If we believed that tradition is the only important value, slavery would still exist, women could not vote, children would work in coal mines, segregation would be the law and interracial couples could be denied the right to marry.
Breaking with tradition on this issue does not take anything away from families led by a man and a woman, but it would give more Maine children the same benefits of family life that Question 1 opponents say they value.
These children also need the love and support of parents, regardless of their gender, which will give them the foundation to succeed.
Voting yes may be a tough choice for some people, but it is the right one. Maine should honor our most cherished tradition and vote “yes” on Question 1.