Episcopal Church leaders urge restraint on marriage amendment

March 2, 2004

President George W. Bush's endorsement of a proposed Federal Marriage Amendment banning same-sex marriage has generated a call for restraint and continued conversation from the Presiding Bishop and other Episcopal bishops, while advocacy organizations within the Episcopal Church lined up for and against the legislation.

Bush called February 24 for a constitutional amendment "defining and protecting marriage as a union of man and woman as husband and wife...while leaving the state legislatures free to make their own choices in defining legal arrangements other than marriage."

The proposed amendment reads as follows:

"Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."

In a statement dated February 25, Presiding Bishop Frank T. Griswold responded:

"The Episcopal Church and other faith communities, as well as the larger society in which we find ourselves, are presently engaged in conversations and debates about issues of human sexuality, and more particularly homosexuality and the public recognition of committed relationships between members of the same sex. The Episcopal Church is on record as being committed to continuing discussion and discernment around these questions, about which we do not have a common mind, and to equal protection under the law and full civil rights for homosexual persons.

"I am concerned about the advisability of a constitutional amendment being put forth for discussion at this time. Questions of sexuality are far from settled, and a constitutional amendment which was perceived as settling this matter might make it more difficult to engage in civil discourse around this topic.

"Further, sexuality is personal, and therefore engages us at an emotional level where the language used can inflame rather than inform. For example, some who do support the legal and civil rights of same-sex couples are disturbed at the use of the term marriage to describe such unions, believing that this term should be used only in reference to the commitment between a man and a woman. Others believe that a term less than marriage is a diminishment of such relationships.

"As I support the honoring of differing perspectives within the Episcopal Church, equally, it is my strong hope that our national discourse during this political season will promote thoughtful and respectful conversation. The fullness of truth seldom resides in one point of view and therefore we need to hold ourselves open to the possibility that our own perspectives will be enlarged by those of others with whom we may disagree. It is my prayer that we will find the way forward that respects the best of our civil and religious traditions.

"During these debates, both within the church and civil society, I would urge us to remember that we are conversing about an issue that affects the lives of honorable men and women who should be recognized in the dignity of their personhood and not simply discussed as abstractions. "

Also commenting on the amendment proposal was Bishop David C. Bane, Jr., of the Episcopal Diocese of Southern Virginia, who issued this statement to his diocese February 27:

"The complex issues surrounding the blessing of same-sex relationships by religious communities or the recognition of same-sex marriages by legal institutions are still the topic of much debate. In these discussions it is important to maintain a clear separation between the roles of church and state. And it is imperative that we not try through the legislative or legal process to short-circuit or pre-judge ongoing conversations about the moral and religious issues involved."

Advocacy groups respond

The Claiming the Blessing steering committee, which includes representatives of Integrity, Oasis, Beyond Inclusion and the Episcopal Women's Caucus, on February 25 called the Bush endorsement "clear and unabashed discrimination against gays and lesbians and their families. It will do nothing to defend the institution of marriage and everything to deny equal rights under the law to a segment of the population."

"Equal protection is guaranteed by the Constitution as a civil right for all Americans--not just a chosen percentage," the steering committee added. "We believe that this effort to write bias into the Constitution is inherently unconstitutional. As Episcopal clergy stood in solidarity with the Freedom Riders who challenged segregation in the 1960's, we stand in solidarity with those in San Francisco who today challenge discrimination against gay and lesbian families. We follow in the footsteps of those who spoke in opposition to segregationist leaders when they railed against the courts implementing integration in public schools as we speak in opposition to George Bush and his expressed intention to amend the Constitution to institutionalize the marginalization of gay and lesbian Americans."

On the opposite side of the issue, the American Anglican Council (AAC) declared its support for the marriage amendment two and a half years ago when it joined the Alliance for Marriage coalition. Three current and former AAC board members sit on the Alliance's Board of Advisors, including the AAC's president and CEO, the Rev. David Anderson; Bishop Peter Beckwith of the Diocese of Springfield; and Bishop Stephen Jecko, a former AAC board member and retired bishop of Florida. Another Episcopalian listed on the AFM board is Diane Knippers of the Institute for Religion and Democracy.

In a statement issued July 11, 2001, the AAC said the amendment is "designed to protect both marriage and democracy in the United States by preserving the legal status of marriage from court redefinition."

"The Federal Marriage Amendment is an important step to help preserve the institution of marriage in our society," said Beckwith in a news release. "The AAC strongly encourages the leadership of the Episcopal Church to join with us in supporting this vital amendment."

Requirements for ratification

A constitutional ban on same-sex marriage requires a two-thirds vote in both houses of Congress and ratification by 38 state legislatures. So far, legislators in Alabama, Arizona, Colorado, Arkansas, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Kentucky, Michigan, Mississippi, Ohio, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia have introduced resolutions urging Congress to pass the Federal Marriage Amendment.

According to the non-partisan online news publication Stateline.org, twenty-one states are considering or planning to debate a ban on marriage of same-sex couples in the state constitution: Alabama, Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Utah, Vermont, Washington and Wisconsin. Legislative approval could place the issue before the voters as soon as November in some states. Proposed constitutional amendments have died in Arizona and Maine, while there is a petition drive in Oregon to place the issue on the November ballot.

At least 12 states are debating statutes that would either prohibit same-sex marriage or marriage-like benefits or strengthen previous bans. In January, Ohio enacted the nation's strictest ban on gay marriage, forbidding any public policy that extends marriage-like benefits to same-sex couples. Similar bills have been introduced in Iowa, Maryland, New Hampshire, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia and Washington, but bills introduced in South Dakota and Wyoming have already failed.

Limited access to marriage benefits is available for same-sex couples in states such as Vermont, where a civil unions law includes hospital visitation rights and the ability to make medical decisions for an incapacitated partner. Registered domestic partners in California will gain almost state-level marriage benefits on Jan. 1, 2005. New Jersey now has a statewide domestic partner registry; Hawaii's system is termed "reciprocal beneficiaries."

According to a 1997 U.S. General Accounting Office report, the 1996 Federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) denies same-sex couples 1,049 marriage rights and responsibilities recognized by the federal government, ranging from adoption and child custody rights, survivor's rights to Social Security benefits, and tax-free inheritance of a spouse's estate, to smaller benefits such as family discounts at national parks.

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