An important piece of legislation will soon be reintroduced in the United States Congress. What it proposes is an amendment to the U. S. Constitution known as the Federal Marriage Amendment. The wording of the amendment is fairly simple. It states: “Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman.” Then it adds: “Neither this constitution or the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law, shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups.”

The Federal Marriage Amendment is sponsored by members of both political parties. It was first crafted by a broad, multi-cultural coalition of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, and others known as the Alliance for Marriage. Their goal is to defend the traditional institution of marriage by clearly defining its boundaries. At present there is no legally binding definition of marriage at the federal level. As a result, the courts and the state legislatures are free to define marriage and determine its benefits on their own terms, and they frequently do. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act succeeded in defining marriage as “a legal union between one man and one woman.” However, this act is not legally binding on either the states or on the courts. What the Federal Marriage Amendment would accomplish is take this decision out of their hands and put it once and for all in the hands of the people.

One practice ruled out by the new amendment is polygamy, or marriage to more than one individual. Polygamy has been formally outlawed in many states, but strictly speaking, it is not prohibited in the U. S. Constitution. This has been unnecessary, since the vast majority of Americans have long opposed the practice on moral grounds.

By a majority of more than two to one, Americans also oppose marriage between two persons of the same gender, which is the other main target of the Federal Marriage Amendment. Today some homosexual activists are actively seeking to gain the social legitimacy that comes with marriage. Marriage is one of the few institutions that can still command the respect of the general public, and the gay community is trying to secure its blessing.

The Federal Marriage Amendment stands against this trend by outlawing same-sex marriage. It should be emphasized that the amendment does not prohibit homosexual couples from living together. Nor does it prohibit practicing homosexuals from getting married, in the proper sense of the word “marriage.” They are still free to marry, as long as they marry someone of the opposite gender, which is the way marriage has always been defined. In this respect, the amendment is non-discriminatory. It is important to say this because the supporters of same-sex marriage claim that anyone who opposes their agenda is guilty of discrimination. In the words of one activist, the Federal Marriage Amendment is “yet another mean-spirited attempt to prevent gay families from receiving the same protection as non-gays do through their ability to marry.”

The marriage amendment does nothing of the kind. Homosexuals will still receive equal protection under the law, as they should. What the amendment prevents anyone from doing is destroying the institution of marriage by completely redefining its terms. To say that the Federal Marriage Amendment discriminates against homosexual couples is like saying that Social Security discriminates against young people by failing to grant them retirement benefits. In a sense, this is true, but it is beside the point. Similarly, so-called same-sex marriage is a contradiction in terms.

The Federal Marriage Amendment falls short of a full biblical definition of marriage. According to the Bible, marriage is the total union of one man and one woman in a love covenant for life. By “covenant” we mean a solemn and binding promise made before God. And this is how the Bible describes marriage–as keeping faith with “your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant” (Mal. 2:14b). Marriage is not simply a covenant; it is also a permanent covenant. Jesus said, “What God has joined together, let man not separate” (Matt. 19:6b).

The reason the Federal Marriage Amendment falls short of this definition is that it fails to describe marriage as a covenant or to specify its permanence. So the amendment does not try to legislate a full biblical definition of marriage. What it does try to do is protect the institution of marriage by specifying that it is the union of one man and one woman. This, too, is fundamental to the biblical definition. Jesus said, “A man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh” (Matt. 19:5). This rules out the intrusion of any third party. It also rules out the marriage of two men or two women as an oxymoron, a logical impossibility. And this is not simply the biblical view of marriage; it is the nearly universal consensus of humanity throughout history.

It is too early to tell whether the Federal Marriage Amendment will make it to the floor of Congress, let alone pass into law. If it ever comes to a vote, the amendment will dominate the national agenda. Its supporters say this needs to happen soon, before activist courts deconstruct the family, and while there is still a chance the amendment will pass. They have a good point. Our country’s standards are slipping, and with each passing year our commitment to what the Bible calls marriage seems to slacken.

If the amendment fails, as most constitutional amendments do, then marriage will continue to be defined by state legislatures and, increasingly, the courts. Inevitably, there will be some places where same-sex marriage will prevail, and the moral basis for marriage will be lost.

The ultimate issue is one of authority. We believe that marriage can only achieve its truest and highest purpose when it is defined on God’s terms. Of course, God has given us the freedom to choose how we will live, and with whom. But if people insist on defining their relationships in ways that are contrary to Scripture–not to mention the dictionary–they should not call this “marriage.”

[For more information on this issue, see the website sponsored by the Alliance for Marriage or read Robert P. George, “The 28th Amendment,” National Review (July 23, 2001), 32-34]

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