Thursday, December 12, 2013
Editing isn't easy. Sometimes you can clarify a sentence by cutting out a few words, and other times you can just confuse everyone.
Gay-marriage supporters carrying signed petitions to the Secretary of State’s Office in Augusta. Secretary of State Charlie Summers released the proposed wording of the November ballot question last week: “Do you want to allow same-sex couples to marry?”
File photo/The Associated Press
That is the dangerous territory where Maine Secretary of State Charlie Summers is heading with his proposed wording of the same-sex marriage question that will go to the voters in November.
Summers, who is also a candidate for the U.S. Senate and an on-the-record opponent of same-sex marriage, has trimmed some of the language that appeared the last time this issue came before the voters, stripping it of the assurance that no religious organization would be required to perform these ceremonies.
This is an important point because of the two ways that the word "marriage" is understood. It is both a religious sacrament and a civil contract, and confusing these two understandings could get in the way of a fair debate on this issue.
The two notions of marriage are distinct and independent. Some churches already bless same-sex unions, but those ceremonies carry no legal weight. Allowing same-sex couples to legally marry would have no effect on religious doctrine or practices, which are protected from government interference by the First Amendment.
Summers knows this, and he also knows that religious opponents of same-sex marriage will attempt to confuse the two issues and claim that legalizing civil marriage for same-sex couples will interfere with their religious freedom. Removing, as Summers proposes, an explicit religious exemption will just make that intentional distortion easier.
Summers' spokeswoman said that he is open to changing the wording of the question if there is a compelling reason. Well, here's one: His proposed wording of the question doesn't distinguish between religious and civil marriage and opens the door to dishonest and misleading debate.
If the wording of the question that was approved by the more than 100,000 Mainers who signed the petitions to put it on the ballot does not work for Summers, he should find some other way to make clear that this question affects civil marriage only and not religious practices.
Summers cut a few too many words out of the proposed question for it to be as clear as it could be. If he's serious about putting a fair question before the voters, this editing job is not done yet.