Public affairs educators ask, will this change benefit society? And the answer is no
By Joe Soss and Debra Fitzpatrick
Joe Soss is Cowles professor for the study of public service and Debra Fitzpatrick is director of the Center on Women and Public Policy at the University of Minnesota's Humphrey School of Public Affairs. The views expressed here are theirs, and not necessarily those of the Humphrey School or the university.
On Nov. 6, Minnesotans will be asked to vote on a constitutional amendment that would limit the freedom to marry, reserving it exclusively for opposite-sex couples. State statutes already bar same-sex couples from the benefits and rights of marriage. The ballot proposal would cement this prohibition by writing it into our state's foundational document. As public affairs educators, it is our obligation to advance the common good in a diverse world and contribute to statewide discussions on important questions of policy and law. Toward these ends, we have signed an open letter, speaking as 43 individuals but guided by the legacy of our school's namesake, Hubert H. Humphrey, who declared that "the worst evil of all is indifference" and called on us to "walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights."
In our fields of study, we evaluate policy changes in many ways. None is more fundamental than the question of whether a proposed change will yield societal benefits. In our view, the case for a constitutional restriction on marriage fails this most basic test.
To begin with, it is important for voters to bear in mind the difference between a statutory restriction on the freedom to marry, which is already in place, and a constitutional amendment. State constitutions serve democracy by safeguarding our basic framework of policymaking. By making their provisions very difficult to alter, we place a set of basic rules and agreements outside the give and take of everyday politics. Statutes, the more conventional vehicle for lawmaking, are designed to be far more open to modification so that future generations will be free to choose new courses of action in line with their changing needs, values and challenges.
The ballot proposal turns this logic on its head, using the state Constitution to set particular value commitments in stone so they cannot be altered by the next generation (who, according to reliable polls, favor marriage equality in large numbers). Indeed, passage of the proposal would open the door for broader uses of this political tactic, turning the state's Constitution into a vehicle for cementing policy victories today at the expense of Minnesota's ability to govern itself tomorrow.
Beyond broad defenses of tradition, proponents of the amendment have said little about how Minnesotans might benefit from a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. The few claims that have been advanced do not withstand scrutiny. We know of no reliable evidence, for example, to support the assertion that marriage will be weakened as a societal institution if same-sex couples are allowed equal access. Like the Board of the Minnesota Chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recently voted unanimously to oppose the proposed amendment, we also find no social-scientific basis for proponents' claim that children will be harmed if same-sex couples are allowed to enter into marriage.
By contrast, voters should be aware that the proposed amendment has the potential to generate significant costs. Currently, 515 Minnesota laws and 1,138 federal laws rely on marital status to determine benefits, rights and privileges. By constitutionally restricting such provisions to opposite-sex couples, the proposed amendment would impose enduring costs directly on same-sex couples and their children. From the workplace to the hospital and beyond, the constitutional amendment would deprive members of these Minnesota families of significant benefits, rights and protections — potentially destabilizing long-term relationships and making families more vulnerable to events that threaten their well-being.
The potential costs are not limited to same-sex couples and their children, however. By dividing loving relationships into first- and second-class statuses, the proposed amendment risks creating confusions and conflicts within Minnesota's policy system. At the same time, it would abandon the efficiencies that have historically flowed from recognizing that a marriage made in one state is valid in all others. As a growing number of states embrace marriage equality, Minnesota would risk trapping itself in a quagmire of interstate and intrastate policy disputes. We concur with members of the University of Minnesota Law School faculty whose open letter concludes that the proposed amendment "will likely generate litigation over both its validity and its scope," inviting "significant and needless expense for the state and its citizens during a time of extraordinary economic difficulty."
Because we value cultural diversity and religious freedom, we support the rights of communities to sustain their own beliefs about marriage and family. At its best, American history has demonstrated that such differences of belief can be defended and honored alongside a system of equality before the law. It is precisely this equality before the law that will be at stake when we go to the polls Nov. 6. On Election Day, we hope our fellow Minnesotans will remember the words of Hubert Humphrey: "Equality means equality for all — no exceptions, no 'yes, buts,' no asterisked footnotes imposing limits."