After the passage of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, Missouri was one of 39 states that passed similar laws that banned same-sex marriages in the state and refused to acknowledge gay marriages performed in other states. Four states — Alaska, Hawaii, Nebraska and Nevada — took the additional step to add such provisions into their constitutions.
National attempts to clarify the issue have failed so far. A Marriage Amendment bill passed the U.S. House of Representatives and was sent on to the U.S. Senate. It is not expected to pass because an earlier version failed in the Senate to break cloture — a parliamentary procedure by which debate is ended and an immediate vote is taken on the matter under discussion.
For now, it is up to the states to decide how marriage should be defined. Missouri will be conducting the first vote in 2004 to see if constitutional backing should be given to a marriage policy already represented in state law. The 20 words that potentially could be added to the Missouri Constitution are at the center of the debate that covers topics ranging from the function and intent of the constitution to modern values, and whether they should be re-evaluated or preserved.
Missouri already has passed state statutes that define marriage as between a man and a woman and refuses to acknowledge marriages that do not fit that definition. When weighing an addition to the constitution that is presently covered in state law, supporters and critics of the amendment disagree whether an additional appearance of the law is an essential defense or legislative overkill.
“This is really democracy in its purist form,” said state Sen. Sarah Steelman, R-Rolla, the sponsor of the legislation that put the amendment before the voters.
Steelman said she wants the interpretation of the law to be up to the voters rather than judges. It is her observation that lawsuits have more recently been used to change public policy concerning gay marriage rather than legislators.
“In other states, the traditional definition of marriage has been challenged,” she said. “If it is in the constitution, judges can’t reinterpret it to allow gay marriages in the state.”
Bubs Hohulin, spokesman for state Sen. Carl Vogel, R-Jefferson City, who co-sponsored Steelman’s bill, agreed that the amendment approach is the best way to preserve the law already in Missouri’s books. He said he has seen many regular statutes ruled unconstitutional. Putting more authority behind the marriage law would better defend it from judicial interpretation, he said.
“In this case, it’s mainly to preclude any action such as what happened in Massachusetts,” referring to the suit that prompted that state’s Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriages, Hohulin said.
Although he knows of no pending lawsuit that would contest Missouri’s existing marriage statutes, without constitutional protection, Hohulin said he imagines a challenge would occur eventually.
Kerry Messer, president of the Missouri Family Network, said the government should do more to defend traditional marriage. He said having the constitution define marriage as between “a man and a woman” would help protect marriage in regard to homosexual, polygamist and bestial weddings in Missouri. He said the recent conduct of the Missouri Supreme Court, placing the amendment on the August ballot where less conservatives would be likely to vote, shows that it is a liberal leaning court and may be open to reinterpreting the law to allow gay marriage.
State Rep. Vicki Walker, D-Kansas City, who is opposed to the amendment, doesn’t believe the redefining concern is justified. She argues judges don’t legislate, they can only rule on the cases brought before them, and then they only act according to law. Walker said the term “activist judges” should be dismissed as an oxymoron and not treated as a serious argument.
Carol Snively, a field organizer for the Constitution Defense League, opposes the amendment which she called “redundant and unnecessary.” She said the constitution is intended to be the basic document to run the state and statutes are meant to fill in any gaps in the law. Snively is afraid voting on the amendment is ending the debate over what is marriage before it has a chance to really begin.
“We really need a lot more debate and dialog before amending the constitution. We can’t change the constitution every time we disagree — or are afraid of disagreeing,” Snively said.
Rep. Vicky Riback Wilson, D-Columbia, also questions the wisdom in adding to an already extensive state constitution, especially when it would be repeating laws already in the state statutes.
“Is it appropriate to continuously amend the constitution?” Wilson asked. “We have far too many things in our constitution that should be dealt with in other ways.”
When the government looks to honor a single definition of marriage, some people question whether this elevation would come at the expense of those who would define marriage differently. The sides differ on whether the advocacy of marriage “between one man and one woman” means taking away from the advancement of same-sex couples.
Wilson said the traditional definition of marriage doesn’t need any additional defending. She said it is well protected by more than 1,000 federal laws that were decreed to married men and women. Those laws cover topics ranging from wills to power of attorney to medical decisions. She said is it curious that all these rights and privileges are granted without any specific requirements. Wilson said they receive them just the same whether or not the couple acts violently toward each other or abuse their children or are monogamous.
“None of that matters as long as they are heterosexual and have a piece of paper,” Wilson said.
Wilson said amendments should be based on fairness and equal treatment for all citizens and not represent the bias of a certain group, philosophy or opinion.
Snively said she viewed the amendment drive as a wedge issue which uses the vulnerability of a minority group to polarize voters. Despite their declared intent to fight for the sanctity of marriage, she said many critics see it as an issue to divide the voters.
When reviewing previous amendments, Walker cites alcohol prohibition, which was later appealed, as the only time an amendment limited the rights of a portion of the population. She sees the push for this amendment to be an example of the “tyranny of the majority” where the group in power acts in opposition to the minority.
“Constitutional amendments should be rare and not politically motivated, and only to increase rights, not limit them,” Walker said.
Steelman said this amendment is not a civil rights issue and the amendment will not take away any civil rights. She said same-sex couples currently have access to legal arrangements the same as other Missouri citizens. Steelman said they are free to file for co-ownership of items or name their partners as benefactors in wills. She said this amendment is to prevent the undermining of the will of the people and to protect the long standing definition of marriage.
Messer said critics of the amendment mistakenly base their argument on the contemporary practice of marriage. It is not a relationship of convenience, Messer said, although many view marriage that way. He said marriage should be an institution that is experienced when a man and a woman commit for a lifetime, monogamous relationship together.
“They want the modern definition of marriage. That’s not at stake!” Messer said. “We are not opposing homosexuals. We are defending traditional marriage.”