In the spirit of conciliation, I want to offer reassurance to those who reacted to the Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage decision with a mix of outrage and horror: It will have no effect on how you live your lives.

This is not a prediction of what will happen in the future. It is a distillation of the nearly 12 years of experience in Massachusetts since our Supreme Judicial Court issued the forerunner of this ruling in 2003. No member of the clergy has had to participate in any marriage she or he found sinful, immoral or even offensive. No house of worship has been forced to open any of its premises – sanctuaries, function halls or, as much as I can ascertain, even parking lots – for ceremonies that contravene their religious tenets.

Opposite-sex marriages have proceeded just as they did in 2002 and before, and the divorce rate has not spiraled. There has been no movement toward legalizing polygamy nor to provide legal sanction to incestuous relationships.

Musical groups have retained fully the right to decide at which celebrations they will perform, and bakers who refuse to decorate cakes with depictions of sexual activity have been under no obligation to change this policy. Contrary to some hysterical expressions of concern, for Massachusetts heterosexuals the “institution of marriage” has not been diminished, unsettled or changed in any way whatsoever by my marrying Jim.

I understand why these fears existed at the time. A number of authority figures – religious, political, judicial and others – stoked them, and because we had no prior experience with the practice, refuting them was difficult.

That is why it is important to focus on the factual record, not just in Massachusetts but in Iowa, New Hampshire, Connecticut and other states where same-sex couples have been getting married for years with no negative consequences on the rest of society.

But we should not rely on history alone. These scare tactics were always implausible, and their repetition – for example, by as responsible a figure as Chief Justice John Roberts in his dissent – calls for an analytical deconstruction as well.

Roberts joins the “be careful of what you destabilize” camp: “The Court … orders the transformation of a social institution that has formed the basis of human society for millennia, for the Kalahari Bushmen and the Han Chinese, the Carthaginians and the Aztecs. Just who do we think we are?”

But he acknowledges that marriage in our country today takes a very particular form, different in many critically important respects from its existence in other societies, both over time and contemporaneously. The chief justice concedes that a union between one man and one woman, each of whom has reached at least the mid-teens and chosen of his or her own will to marry the other, is not the unvarying rule, globally or historically. Given his implicit recognition that the rules of marriage have changed drastically from society to society and from era to era, what is the basis for thinking that this change will unsettle the institution?

Most relevantly, in America, the principle that adults may freely choose to marry adults of a different race has only been in full force since 1967, and polygamy was enough of a factor in Utah that Congress required its repudiation before admitting it to the union in the 19th century.

I do not cite these deviations from the model the chief justice invokes to defend them. My point is precisely the opposite: Forms of marriage our society disfavored were transformed and neither marriage as an institution nor those wishing to be wed suffered.

Equally invalid was the fear voiced in 2003 and repeated these days that clergy will be required to officiate at marriages to which they are theologically opposed. Catholic priests have never been forced to bless unions where one partner has been divorced without an annulment, or even for most of our history to marry a Catholic to a non-Catholic who did not pledge in writing to a Catholic upbringing for their children.

Very Orthodox Jewish rabbis, to my dismay, still refuse to unite a Jewish woman who has been civilly divorced to a Jewish man unless her previous husband agrees to a religious divorce, no matter how badly he behaved during the marriage.

True, public officials who have voluntarily assumed public duties that include issuing marriage forms cannot refuse services to same-sex couples that they owe to all the publics, any more than Virginia clerks could have done so to interracial couples after the Supreme Court – Scalia’s nine elitist patricians – struck down their state’s law against what the bigots called “miscegenation.”

And in none of these cases are the officials’ religious views a defense against the obligation to perform public responsibilities. The most devout Catholic or ultra-Orthodox Jew in charge of issuing marriage licenses cannot deny them because one of the applicants has or has not been divorced, according to the tenets of their respective faiths.

I close with a very confident prediction. Within a very few years, if that long, the people now obsessing over the damage they expect from the Supreme Court’s decision will be in severe danger of getting over it.

Barney Frank is a retired congressman and the author of landmark legislation. He divides his time between Maine and Massachusetts.

Twitter: BarneyFrank

 


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