Marriage on the Rocks

Liberal Laws Lead to Problems, Says Research

BOSTON, Massachusetts, JUNE 5, 2004 ( Giving marriage status to same-sex unions continues to be a political and legal hot potato in many countries. The court-imposed liberalization of marriage laws in Massachusetts took effect May 17. Plans to change the state’s Constitution to restrict marriage to heterosexual couples have run into problems, and the earliest an amendment could be placed on the election ballot is 2006, the Associated Press reported the same day.

In California, meanwhile, court hearings continue in the state’s Supreme Court regarding the legality of the move by San Francisco’s mayor to authorize marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples. By the time the Supreme Court ordered city officials to stop the marriage ceremonies, around 4,100 couples had gone through the process, Reuters reported March 12.

In neighboring Arizona a challenge to the ban on same-sex marriages was rejected by the state Supreme Court, the AP reported May 26. The court, without comment, let stand an appeals-court ruling upholding the 1996 state law.

The issue is rapidly developing in other countries too. With little fanfare the Brazilian state of Rio Grande do Sul has allowed same-sex couples to marry. The AP reported May 28 that the first ceremony took place the day before, following a judicial decision two months earlier. Brazil’s southernmost state is the first to allow same-sex marriages.

The court decision came about when a lesbian college professor going on a sabbatical abroad asked the university to pay for her partner’s costs. Following the university’s refusal, a panel of judges issued an opinion defending homosexual couple’s rights to seek the same legal protections afforded to traditional married couples. The decision can only be overturned by means of a constitutional amendment, according to the AP.

Proposals in Spain and Australia

In Spain, the newly elected Socialist Party government announced it would shortly introduce legislation to allow same-sex couples to marry, the daily ABC reported May 26. Justice Minister Juan Fernando López Aguilar said that same-sex couples would have the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples.

The Socialist Party’s determination to liberalize marriage laws, as well as abortion regulations, was evident when the first vice president, María Teresa Fernández de la Vega, warned the Catholic Church not to impose its norms on society. Her statement came during a meeting of government ministers she was presiding over, the newspaper El País reported May 29.

In Australia, the federal government is pursuing a contrasting course of action. Prime Minister John Howard announced a legislative proposal to insert into the Marriage Act a definition of marriage as “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others voluntarily entered into for life,” the Sydney Morning Herald reported May 28. Another legislative change would also prohibit same-sex couples from adopting children from overseas.

But same-sex couples would receive some legal perquisites, such as retirement benefits for surviving members of homosexual couples, now restricted to spouses and de facto heterosexual couples.

The opposition Labor Party has announced its support for the marriage definition, but it remains to be seen if it will also vote for the adoption ban. Labor Party support is needed in the Senate, where the government does not have a majority. Some parliamentarians, both in the Labor Party and the ruling Liberal Party, oppose the proposals.

The Australian bishops’ Committee for the Family and for Life welcomed the government’s announcement. “Marriage and family are unique relationships,” said committee chairman Bishop Eugene Hurley in a May 27 press release. “The commitment of men and women in the institution of marriage and their openness to children is the basis of every society.”

Scandinavia’s skid

Some proponents of same-sex marriage ask: If family defenders are so convinced of marriage’s importance, then why not help society by extending the positive benefits of the institution to same-sex couples?

A reply to this argument has come in the form of two lengthy articles in the Weekly Standard magazine. In the Feb. 2 issue, Stanley Kurtz, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution, first looked at the Scandinavian countries. Sweden, Norway and Denmark “have had something close to full gay marriage for a decade or more,” he noted. Far from strengthening marriage, the liberalized laws “have reinforced an existing Scandinavian trend toward the separation of marriage and parenthood.”

In Denmark, for example, 60% of firstborn children have unmarried parents. In Norway, the out-of-wedlock birthrate rose to 50% from 39% in the period 1990-2000. In Sweden, the comparable figure rose to 55% from 47%.

In general, the Scandinavian countries have been marked by a rise in “fragile families based on cohabitation and out-of-wedlock childbearing,” Kurtz observed. Taking into account the high breakup rate of cohabitating couples, “the total rate of family dissolution in Scandinavia significantly increased” during the 1990s, he said.

Kurtz observed that after an intense debate from 1991 to 1993 over same-sex marriage, the legal recognition of homosexual couples weakened defenders of marriage, “placing a weapon in the hands of those who sought to replace marriage with cohabitation.”

In the May 31 issue of the Weekly Standard, Kurtz examined the Dutch family. Until recently, marriage itself was still strong as an institution, even though premarital cohabitation was common. But in the last few years, out-of-wedlock births nearly doubled, reaching 31% last year. And a lengthy debate over same-sex marriage ended with full legalization, in 2001.

As in the Scandinavian countries, a contributing factor to Dutch approval of same-sex marriage was the weakening of the link between marriage and parenthood, Kurtz’s article said. And the disunion between the two has, in turn, been accelerated by diluting marriage, in extending it to homosexuals.

The Dutch Parliament revised parental leave laws in 2001, extending the rights of married couples and registered partners to unregistered cohabitors. The same year changes to the tax code extended rights to unregistered as well as registered partners. Same-sex marriage, concluded Kurtz, lead to “the replacement of marriage by a flexible and morally neutral range of relationship options.”

Pope’s plea

John Paul II recently spoke about the importance of protecting marriage from attempts to weaken. “Modern society rarely pays heed to the permanent nature of marriage,” the Pope said May 22 when he addressed visiting U.S. bishops from the ecclesiastical provinces of San Antonio and Oklahoma City.

The Holy Father’s speech detailed a number of ways in which the Church can help married couples. He called upon the Church to offer better premarital instruction aimed at forming couples in the vocation to matrimony. The Pope also recommended that communities reinforce the apostolate of ministries dedicated to family life and to extend efforts to bring Catholic families back to their faith.

And for young people, “faced with a secular culture which promotes instant gratification and selfishness over the virtues of self-control and generosity,” the Pope called upon priests and laity to reinforce their support and guidance by making youth ministry “an essential part of your diocesan programs.” Essential efforts indeed in resisting attempts to mortally weaken marriage.

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