By Sister Mary Ann Walsh
“The law is a ass.”
So spoke Mr. Bumble in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. The sometimes humorous jab at lawyers hit home August 4, when Federal Judge Vaughn Walker overturned California’s Proposition 8 that had defined marriage as a union of one man and one woman.
The decision called California citizens’ decision to define marriage as “irrational,” which suggests that their decision was absurd and beyond the pale. What’s really irrational is the judge’s dismissal of marriage between a man and a woman – the basic bedrock of our society – as if it were some kookie idea. What’s irrational is his ignoring the will of the people with real life experience of marriage, who have voted down gay marriage not only in California, but throughout the United States whenever legalization of gay marriage has been put to a vote. These votes did not take place in pockets of conservatism. Fourteen years ago, the U.S. House of Representatives voted 342-67, and the Senate voted 85-14, to accept the traditional definition of marriage in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).
What is even more irrational is the judge’s dismissal of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment and Freedom of Religion with these damning words: “Religious beliefs that gay and lesbian relationships are sinful or inferior to heterosexual relationships harm gays and lesbians.”
The judge’s placing religion and government at odds amounts to Constitutional irrationality. It is no small irony that his anti-religious position is enshrined in a ruling deemed to oppose bigotry. The U.S. Constitution guarantees citizens freedom for religion. That precludes government from weighing in on the “acceptability” of religious beliefs.
Judge Walker, in his decision, backed his bigotry with errors, including the misstatement that the “Catholic Church views homosexuality as sinful.” The fact is, the Catholic Church sees homosexuality as a condition, an inclination in a person, something not intrinsically sinful. The church calls for pastoral support, not condemnation, for people with this inclination. The Catholic Church makes clear that it is homosexual activities it deems sinful, because it holds that all sexual activity belongs within marriage between a man and a woman. At the same time the Catholic Church opposes all unjust discrimination against gays and lesbians and abhors violence against them.
The Catholic Church also holds that marriage is a unique institution with a privileged place because it is foundational to the good of society. The church is not alone in holding that a family headed by a mother and a father is the optimal place in which to raise a child. Judge Walker begs to differ, however, and says with grand aplomb that research that supports the contrary view “is accepted beyond serious debate in the field of developmental psychology.” If there’s ever been a statement open to debate it’s that one.
Judge Walker devoted three pages of his decision to make his case for the bigotry of religion, an insult to the tens of millions of religious people in the nation. This is not to deny that some people act despicably and portray their bigotry against gays as religious expression. So too do those who spew anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and anti-whatever sentiments. They’re an unfortunate result of our human condition that lets the morally weak, even morally decrepit, walk among us. Bigoted people are an unfortunate result but not a reason to upend the U.S. Constitution.
Archbishop Joseph Kurtz, chairman of the U.S. bishops’ Ad Hoc Committee for the Defense of Marriage, was spot on when he declared that “marriage is more fundamental and essential to the well being of society than perhaps any other institution. It is simply unimaginable that the court could claim a conflict between marriage and the Constitution.”
On August 4, 2010, Judge Walker proved Dickens was right. The law is a ass.
Sister Mary Ann Walsh is director of media relations for the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.