Legislative Wrangling Over Word Definitions

Yesterday (March 11th), the Massachusetts legislature approved a proposed amendment to the state constitution banning gay marriage, and instead establishing “civil unions” for same-sex couples. In this heated debate, I think neither side has noticed the the arguments over the sanctity of marriage vs. the civil rights of gays and lesbians has suddenly become a movement to amend the country’s oldest constitution to legislate the definition of a word.

As a professional writer, despite all the heated debate and the heartfelt views on both sides, I have to say I find this almost amusing…

Here’s the text of the amendment, as it was approved by the legislature:

“It being the public policy of this Commonwealth to protect the unique relationship of marriage, only the union of one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in Massachusetts.

Two persons of the same sex shall have the right to form a civil union if they meet the requirements set forth by law for marriage.

Civil unions for same sex couples are established hereunder and shall provide entirely the same benefits, protections, rights, and responsibilities that are afforded to couples married under Massachusetts law. All laws applicable to marriage shall also apply to civil unions.

This Article is self-executing, but the General Court may enact laws not inconsistent with anything herein contained to carry out the purpose of this Article.”

So, basically, “civil unions” are exactly the same as marriage… but we just don’t want it called marriage. Gays and lesbians can get married in all but name. And somehow, this legislated definition of the word “marriage” will protect our fair Commonwealth from crumbling into some sort of moral decay.

I wonder if the police will arrest any couple who describe themselves as married, when they in fact have a civil union?

And speaking of language, has the legislature really thought through the name “civil union”? I don’t think it’ll be as usable as “marriage,” especially as a verb. I don’t expect to see any cars dragging tin cans, decked out in streamers, and bearing the sign “just civil unioned.” I can’t see one partner getting down on his or her knee and asking “will you civil union me?”

Frankly, I think the legislature should leave the work of defining words to Webster’s.

Of course, this brouhaha is amplified by the election year hysteria. Even though the legislature passed the amendment, that’s just the first step… the earliest the amendment could be approved and added to the constitution is 2006. Meanwhile the State Supreme Court has dictated that marriage licenses be made available to same-sex couples starting in May. Nothing short of the court reversing itself will head off the establishment of same-sex marriages in the Commonwealth. My guess is that the current debate will die down long before this amendment gets off the ground.

This amendment issue did prompt me take a look at the Consitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (available on the web here: http://www.state.ma.us/legis/const.htm). The State House’s web page claims that it is the oldest written functional constitution in existence… and boy does it look it. Reading through it, you’re struck by how much it has been patched up and amended over the years. Lots of cruft has built up… which reminds me an awful lot of junk DNA accumulating in the genome. You can see echoes of our puritan past right up front in Article III, which provides for public funding of “Protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.” Later, in an amendment, Quakers are given a alternate oath of office which omits the word “swear” and “So help me, God.” (As far as I can tell, Atheists, Wiccans, and other non-God worshippers are required to take the oath as-is.)

Hopefully, the constitution will emerge from this latest tempest unpatched, and the current hue and cry won’t leave even more junk to pollute our state’s DNA.


  1. On the one hand the whole gay “marriage” debate does seem much ado about nothing. But on the other hand it also seems important because of the value of, I forget what you call it, performative language, e.g. “I arrest you, I marry you, I solemnly swear,” etc. It gets to the whole matter of precision in thought and language, and to me that’s a good thing. If marriage is an institution that matters to society as much as it evidently does, then it’s worth discussing what it is.

    Given a choice between living in the Orwellian/Alice in Wonderland world where up is down and words have no meaning (or as George Bush would say, “What’s the difference?” ), or living in a world where people engage in ferocious debate about the precise meaning of words, I choose the latter.

    Having said all that, and as a guy in a conventional marriage who is coming up on his 25th anniversary, I find the whole “defense of marriage” idea preposterous and insulting. Marriage has evolved, and that’s been (mostly) a good thing. That is to say, marriage as a union willingly entered into by two people as peers, motivated by affection, is a whole lot different from what marriage was 500 years ago, anywhere. So why not gay marriage? I’m all for it.

    And certainly I strongly oppose any efforts to amend either the Massachusetts or USian constitution.

  2. I’ll eventually get my take on this cranked out. It’s a long piece so it’s taking awhile.

    Basically, this is not an issue amendable to rational analysis. But this travesty is the inevitable result of trying to move society too far too fast too soon. James II was absolutely right that it sucked to discriminate against Catholics, and he discovered that even a king who is right on the law, right on morality, and just plain right can still lose it all.

    Society is a lot like a horse, if you lead it gently and firmly (or savagely beat it into submission), you can get it to go places and do things it never would have dreamed of doing. But yank it and shout at it and it’ll kick you in the face and run the other way.

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