The Senator who cried 'bigot'

Posted: Jun 06, 2006 7:05 PM
Sen. Ted Kennedy certainly let us know what he really thinks of Americans who support the Marriage Protection Amendment, defining marriage as the union of husband and wife: "A vote for this amendment is a vote for bigotry, pure and simple." According to Minority Leader Harry Reid, even suggesting the Constitution should protect marriage as the union of husband and wife constitutes something like hate speech: "For me, it is clear the reason for this debate is to divide our society, to pit one against another," Reid said. "This is another one of the president's efforts to frighten, to distort, to distract and to confuse America."

Gay marriage activists published even more vitriolic denunciations. My personal favorite came from Paula Ettelbrick, the NYU law professor who heads something called the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission, a U.S.-based organization. She called the Marriage Protection Amendment "an unquestioned violation of international treaties" and a "clear violation of international human rights."

I was in the room on Monday when President Bush made his remarks in support of a constitutional amendment to protect marriage. I applauded with the rest of the crowd when he said: "Every American deserves to be treated with tolerance and respect and dignity. On an issue of this great significance, opinions are strong and emotions run deep. And all of us have a duty to conduct this discussion with civility and decency toward one another."

I certainly believe that. But I have to wonder, do advocates for gay marriage also believe it? Will no one turn to Ted Kennedy and say, "Sir, have you no decency?" The six in 10 Americans who oppose gay marriage (and the majority who in the latest Gallup poll support a constitutional amendment to protect marriage) do not deserve to be denounced as bigots by their own elected officials.

The "B" word is also fueling new fears about the ultimate consequences of gay marriage. As Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., said on the floor of the Senate: "Same-sex marriage proponents argue that sexual orientation is like race, and that opponents of same-sex marriage are therefore like bigots who oppose interracial marriage. Once same-sex marriage becomes law, that understanding is likely to be controlling." Brownback pointed to a litany of potential negative consequences for traditional faiths: "So in states with same-sex marriage, religiously affiliated schools, adoption agencies, psychological clinics, social workers, marital counselors, etc. will be forced to choose between violating their own deeply held beliefs and giving up government contracts, tax-exempt status, or even being denied the right to operate at all. ... It's already happening, as we've seen in Massachusetts with Boston's Catholic Charities being forced out of the adoption business entirely rather than violate church teaching on marriage and family."

Brownback was drawing on the conclusions of an impressive group of religious liberty scholars, brought together by the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty to consider the implications of same-sex marriage. (You can read the paper yourself at

For the foreseeable future, Americans are going to live with some deep moral disagreements on the marriage issue. Conducting this debate in a spirit of mutual respect and civility would be a lot easier if gay marriage advocates stopped pretending that only fear, hatred or bigotry is at the root of these disagreements.