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Marriage amendment is about discrimination

Whatever backers intend, to single out one group for unequal treatment is a textbook definition of discrimination.

Jeffery L. Bineham

“It is possible to love and respect our LGBT brothers and sisters and stand up for the essential definition of marriage being between one man and one woman, and that’s not about hatred, it’s not about discrimination.” — Rep. Steve Gottwalt, St. Cloud Times, May 10, 2012.

 All politicians describe their actions in positive terms, so it’s not surprising that the author of an amendment to enshrine the prohibition of gay marriage “more permanently in our Minnesota Constitution” would link his effort to love and respect for the people he wants to disenfranchise. And while one might believe he isn’t motivated by hatred, his amendment, should it pass, will place in the state’s most important legal document a justification for discrimination.

In many faith communities, marriage is a sacred commitment ordained by God to create a permanent union between two people, usually one male and one female.  I understand that and for the most part believe the state should not dictate how religious groups define or treat marriage. 

The civil-rights question

But when it comes to public policy, marriage is a contract that encourages a stable union between two people and provides certain legal protections and advantages to the parties who sign it.  It violates common sensibilities about equal rights – not to mention the U.S. Constitution’s 14th amendment, which asserts that no state may deny any person “equal protection of the laws” – to single out a group of people and deny them access to those protections and advantages and, in so doing, to suggest that their committed relationships are less legitimate or less important than the relationships entered into by those in the majority. To single out one group for unequal treatment is a textbook definition of discrimination.

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If the state did not issue marriage licenses to anyone, but provided civil union contracts for everyone, then religious groups could keep the term “marriage” and the state could treat straight and non-straight people equally under the law. But if the state is going to issue marriage licenses, then it should not discriminate based on sexual orientation when it does that.

In written correspondence about this issue, Gottwalt has stated he is “not motivated” by “hatred, bigotry, and discrimination,” and that because his amendment is “not meant to offend or deny rights to anyone,” it is therefore not discriminatory. Whatever his motivations might be, the obvious result should his amendment pass will be to place in the constitution a prohibition that says the laws that apply to male-female couples can not be extended to gay and lesbian partners. 

Separating intent from effect

And that’s no small matter.  Minnesota has more than 500 laws that provide to male-female couples rights and benefits that are denied to same-sex couples. How is that not discriminatory? And since the amendment would ensure the continuation of this situation, how is that also not discriminatory?  

I’ll take Gottwalt at his word when he says he loves and respects his LGBT brothers and sisters. But let’s be honest: The effect of his efforts, whatever his intent might be, will be to treat one group of people differently than another group of people, and to do so in a way that provides power and privilege to the group that’s dominant, and denies equal treatment under the law to the group that’s subordinate.

Jeffery L. Bineham is professor of rhetoric in the Department of Communication Studies at St. Cloud State University.

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