Wednesday, June 26, 2013
Are We Defending the Indefensible?: The Death of DOMA and Proposition 8
"Ding-Dong, DOMA's dead!" trumpeted one of my friends on Facebook at the news that the U.S. Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional a major part of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). Another facebook friend posted this picture of the rainbow-hued Supreme Court in celebration of today's two decisions that sounded death knells for proponents of traditional marriage.
The DOMA decision (U.S. v. Windsor) concerned the right of the federal government to define marriage as between one man and one woman for the purposes of receiving benefits under federal law. The Supreme Court held that the definition of marriage should be left up to the states. The second decision (Hollingsworth v. Perry) focused on a California state ballot initiative known as Proposition 8. Through Proposition 8, Californians had voted to amend their state constitution to declare that marriage should be between one man and one woman. The district court declared Proposition 8 to be unconstitutional, and the Supreme Court, based on technical grounds, refused to revisit the lower court's decision.
What jumps out most in both cases is the refusal of the executive branch to defend the validly-enacted laws. The Obama administration refused to defend DOMA, and the U.S. Congress had to intervene to champion its own legislation. In California, the state governor refused to defend Proposition 8 in court, so a body of citizens stepped in to press the case through the judicial system. By the time they came up for consideration by the Supreme Court, both laws had been abandoned by the governments supposedly in charge of enforcing them. So, from an ideological perspective, the Supreme Court decisions were almost after-thoughts. The battles had already been lost.
The battle may be lost in the court of public opinion, as well. Support for gay marriage has steadily grown over time, at least as measured in the polls, and a majority of Americans now appear to favor same-sex marriage. Take my facebook friends, for example. These two lovely ladies are married with children, and are as heterosexual as the day is long, as far as I know. Firmly ensconced in the middle class, they live in the suburbs. One is married to a lawyer and the other to a government official. They are the new normal.
I don't have any idea why these particular friends disliked DOMA, but they represent the prevailing cultural zeitgeist, at least on the Eastern seaboard. And the calling card of this culture states, "Let them love and be happy. If two people love each other and want to get married, why would anyone want to get in their way?" As some Net pundit opined recently, emotion is everything today. In contrast, the Middle Ages were the age of faith, and the Enlightenment was the age of reason. But modernity is the age of feeling. From the modern viewpoint, love is about mutual satisfaction that can be ours right now, today. It's not love if you can't smell it, taste it, feel it, have sex with it, raise children with it. "Why can't you just be best friends?" a priest once asked a gay couple. They shook their heads, laughing. They wanted more.
This romanticization of love, and of married love in particular, eclipses any other kind of love in the modern imagination. But other loves do exist and ultimately can bring just as much satisfaction. Priests know this, as do many members of religious communities. Unmarried schoolteachers know this, and widowed grandmothers know this. Siblings know this, and parents and children know this. True love doesn't require sex, and neither does true friendship. And marriage doesn't automatically equal true love, unless both people are willing to persevere to the end, even (and especially) when they don't "feel" like it. But in this age of feeling, tyrannized by emotion's fickle inconstancy, we may not be able to convince anyone that "feeling" is not the arbiter of justice and right.