Recently, Olympic gold medalist Peter Vidmar was publicly pressured by openly-gay Olympic athletes to step down as leader of the 2012 U.S. Olympic team because of his public support for a California state constitutional proposition defining marriage as between a man and a woman (Proposition 8).
Once the news cycle on the story played out, however, those who knew Vidmar questioned if such criticism and such a response was warranted. NPR commentator Frank Deford said: Let us encourage the U.S. Olympic Committee to plead with Vidmar to rejoin the American team — an honorable gentleman, whom we can all respect, whether or not we agree with one opinion of his.
Deford is essentially asking whether we can agree to disagree.
It is a critical question to answer, because it goes to the essence of how we function as a constitutional democracy. Agreeing to disagree acknowledges that within a free society, different fundamental beliefs and interests will arise, but the inevitable disagreements that might result from such differences can be addressed and resolved according to well-understood norms, procedures and rules.
Many disagreements can be handled informally. But some are of such fundamental importance to those directly affected or to society generally that the disagreement can be handled only through legislation or litigation.
The definition of marriage has become such an issue.
For some, the traditional and predominant legal definition of marriage between a man and woman is now understood as denial of a fundamental civil right to those attracted to a partner of the same gender. For others, however, this predominant legal definition codifies an essential institution for the formation of stable families that finds its basis for pair-wise bonding between the sexes in convention, in nature and in revelation.
There is much to be said about how American family law has changed in the last half-century from a formal set of obligations that were particularly protective of children to a much more malleable set of rights designed mostly for romantically interested partners. There is much to be said of how these more permissive approaches to marriage have brought us to this societal conflict regarding the definition of marriage.
But our purpose today is simply to call for common decency and institutional integrity in how this conflict plays out through established political and legal channels.
Those who support a definition of marriage that dates to thousands of years, that has provided demonstrable success in child-rearing and social stability, and that is sanctioned by Biblical and modern revelation, should be able to make use of peaceful democratic and legal institutions to defend that definition without fear of intimidation and reprisals. Those making the case to redefine traditional marriage should enjoy the same privilege.
Sadly, however, it is our observation that those engaging this debate through civil channels are finding that speaking out in favor of traditional marriage on principle is now cause for bullying and intimidation.
Vidmar's case is not an isolated example.
Recently, former U.S. solicitor general Paul Clement, partner at an Atlanta-based law firm, was hired by the U.S. House of Representatives to defend the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). DOMA, which passed Congress by wide bipartisan margins, defines marriage for federal statutory and administrative purposes as being between a man and a woman. President Bill Clinton signed the act into law.
Clement's law firm, King & Spalding, came under scathing attack from some gay activists for its decision to represent the U.S. House of Representatives on this matter.
Instead of explaining candidly that lawyers within our adversarial system necessarily represent controversial issues, and instead of abiding by its ethical obligation to provide representation once accepted, King & Spalding abandoned its representation. Clement himself resigned his position at the firm because of his professional ethical duty of loyalty to his client. He will continue to represent the House of Representatives, but his law partners have abandoned him.
In Vidmar's and Clement's cases there was no accusation of personal hostility towards gays or lesbians. Instead they participated in good faith efforts to maintain in law a principled view of conjugal marriage.
Are no attorneys allowed to defend traditional marriage in court? Is the U.S. House of Representatives denied access to representation? Are all who publicly or financially supported Proposition 8, which garnered 53 percent of the vote, now to be excluded from all prominent leadership positions?
We recognize that there are many groups advocating for gay marriage who do not resort to intimidation tactics, who engage in vigorous, issue-focused debate. We commend them for this approach even when we disagree with their arguments.
How our society defines marriage through legislation and litigation is perhaps the most consequential social issue of our day. People of principle find themselves on opposite sides of this issue.
We believe that traditional marriage between a man and a woman is ordained of God and is necessary for the stable, healthy families that best ensure the sound development of children. We believe that rights to the free exercise of religion of those sharing this view deserve legal protection and respect. And as this historic struggle over marriage moves forward, there should be free and open access to the ballot box and to courts of competent jurisdiction for those sharing such beliefs to make their case without fear of reprisal.
Let us agree to disagree.