How many legs does a dog have if you call its tail a leg? That familiar fable, often attributed to President Abraham Lincoln, comes to mind when contemplating the redefinition of marriage by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court.
In a 4-3 decision released Nov. 18, the court acknowledged that for three centuries Massachusetts defined civil marriage as stated in "Black's Law Dictionary": "the legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife." The court then arrogantly determined that there is no "rational basis" for such a restrictive definition, which it said reflects a "destructive stereotype" about the instability of same-sex couples and their inability to procreate.
After pontificating in like vein for several pages, the court ordered that at the end of 180 days Massachusetts will have a new definition of marriage: "We construe civil marriage to mean the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others."
That formula not only redefines "marriage," but also "spouse." Although spouse is a gender-neutral word, federal law states the obvious: "The word spouse refers only to a person of the opposite sex who is a husband or a wife."
With five months to go before the Massachusetts decision becomes final on May 16, it is time to consider how such a radical change in the meaning of a word by one state will affect or be affected by the laws of Congress and the other 49 states, all of which adhere to the definition of marriage that Massachusetts abolished.
Take one example: The Internal Revenue Service Code has provided since 1948 that "a husband and wife may make a single return jointly of income taxes." If Massachusetts law no longer recognizes the federal meaning of husband and wife, then Massachusetts couples, including opposite sex couples married after May 16, will no longer be entitled to file a joint federal income tax return.
Gay advocates want same-sex couples to claim the 1,049 benefits of marriage under federal law - referring to the 1,049 federal laws in which marital status is a factor - according to a 1997 General Accounting Office report. But what is likely to happen instead is that opposite-sex couples married in Massachusetts after the effective date will lose those same 1,049 federal benefits.
The 1,049 federal laws recognize and were intended to support marriage as the union of husband and wife, not the union of "two persons." In our federal system, Massachusetts may well be free to abolish the concept of husband and wife within its borders, but it is not free to label the civil union of "two persons" as a marriage entitled to federal recognition.
Phyllis Schlafly is a national leader of the pro-family movement, a nationally syndicated columnist and author of Feminist Fantasies.
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