Inside the First Amendment
By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar
Last time out, I addressed the fallout from the passage of Proposition 8, a ballot initiative that bans same-sex marriage in California. Both sides, I argued, need to rethink their strategy of harsh attacks before the clash escalates out of control.
On the anti-Prop 8 side, I singled out as “going too far” an ad depicting Mormon missionaries invading the home of a lesbian couple, taking their wedding rings and tearing up their marriage certificate.
On the pro-Prop 8 side, I characterized some of the ads as “scare tactics,” especially those showing elementary schoolchildren learning about homosexuality.
Readers supporting each side, however, take issue with my criticism of their position — and think I’m letting the other side off the hook.
“Have you ever had to vote to save your fundamental rights?” writes one outraged Californian. “You found the ad with Mormons behaving as criminals offensive?” Taking away marriage rights for gay people “is exactly their goal,” he argues. “I don’t have any sympathy for these Nazis.”
“I am not aware of any false, extremely exaggerated, ugly or hateful ads that Mormons produced for the Prop 8 campaign,” writes a Utah reader. “However, I am very aware of the false, bigoted, hate-mongering ads produced by the gay rights side.”
Hate, it seems, is in the eyes of the beholder.
A number of readers object to the charge by gay-rights groups that the ads about teaching same-sex marriage in public schools are full of exaggerations and lies. They point to a recent Massachusetts case involving parents who lost a court fight to opt out of stories depicting same-sex marriages in the elementary school curriculum.
“The TV ad (about children being taught gay marriage) you referenced is true,” says a Colorado reader. “Children are taught about homosexuality in public schools.”
He has a point. The Massachusetts curriculum does, in fact, include books with a few images and stories of same-sex marriages — as might be expected in a state where gay marriage is legal. Anti-Prop 8 forces in California were disingenuous, at best, when they argued that recognition of gay marriage has nothing to do with education.
Nevertheless, I stand by my assertion that these ads unfairly used children to scare people into voting for Prop 8. The fact that young children may be exposed to a few stories or images of same-sex marriages does not mean that elementary schools are promoting homosexuality or encouraging children to be gay, as the tone of the ads seemed to suggest. I recognize, however, that some parents equate exposure with indoctrination.
School officials in Massachusetts argue that the aim of including images of same-sex marriages in the elementary curriculum is not to promote homosexuality or to make children gay (it doesn’t work that way), but rather to help children see families with gay parents as a normal, healthy part of the community.
Thus for readers on one side of the debate, inclusion of same-sex marriages in the curriculum is a welcome way of supporting gay parents and their children. One self-described “heterosexual married Christian” in New Jersey argues: “Encouraging homosexuals to enter stable familial relationships, obviously including marriage, is what is best for society.”
But for the other side, inclusion is a grave threat to the common good. “While tolerance is important,” writes another reader, “our deteriorating society cannot long survive if it condones and even promotes homosexuality.”
My readers, like most Americans, are bitterly divided over how marriage should be defined. Some are convinced that marriage has always had one meaning and can never be redefined. Others point out that marriage has been redefined before: Wives were once treated as property (and still are in some cultures) and interracial marriages were outlawed as unnatural and evil.
With differences this deep, we are in for a protracted fight. Fortunately, the First Amendment makes it possible to wage the war with words, giving all sides freedom to make their case openly and robustly without government interference.
Of course, there will be winners and losers – we live in a democracy. But how we debate — not only what we debate — matters.
It isn’t mandated by the First Amendment, but treating our opponents with civility and respect might enable us to live with one another when the battle is finally over.
Charles C. Haynes is senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, 555 Pennsylvania Ave., N.W., Washington, D.C. 20001. Web: firstamendmentcenter.org. E-mail: [email protected].