What Would Jefferson Do?
It’s nearly February -- high season for Virginia legislating -- and the General Assembly is up to its usual crazy shit. One has to wonder what Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and champion of individual rights, would make of our more conservative legislators. (Sidebar: remember when the term conservative was used to describe people who wanted the government to stay OUT of our lives? Or is that just when it comes to paying our taxes? I get confused.) Among the bills proposed in this year’s legislative session are HJ 41: the usual constitutional amendment defining marriage as something that may exist only between a man and a woman, HB 187: a bill forbidding medical professionals to artificially inseminate women who are not married, HB 164: a bill requiring the promotion of abstinence in all Family Life Education (AKA “sex-ed”) classes, and HB 1308: a bill that allows public facilities to deny access to groups that encourage pre-marital sex.
Clearly Virginia’s legislators are concerned about sex. And clearly they have either not heard of -- or just don’t give a fuck about -- the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the law. They also seem to be operating under the delusion that their religious beliefs should play a role in making laws for the rest of us to live by. The common theme among these four bills is so-called Christian values. (Not Christian as in “love thy neighbor” and “judge not lest ye be judged,” but Christian as in “every time I open a Bible I somehow manage to grossly misinterpret was Jesus was saying about love, acceptance, and salvation.” But that’s not today’s topic.)
The same-sex marriage debate is not a brand-new one, nor is Virginia the only state to propose an amendment to its constitution that would ban it. From a legal standpoint, I just don’t see what the fuss is about. The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution states unambiguously that laws must apply to all citizens equally, which basically means that laws cannot be discriminatory. I’m not a Supreme Court justice (though I often wish I was), but I can safely say that a law allowing straight people to marry each other but forbidding gay people to marry each other is discriminatory. An amendment to the FEDERAL Constitution defining marriage as between a man and a woman would allow states to circumvent the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection, but some of you may have noticed that Dubya dropped that campaign promise the second the Christian Right re-elected him. Until such an amendment is ratified, states have to abide by both the letter and spirit of the existing Constitution.
The only debate you can have about same-sex marriage is a values debate. And that particular values debate probably doesn’t sound so very different from the debate Virginians had a mere 40 years ago about inter-racial marriage. Up until a 1967 Supreme Court decision, Virginia law forbade miscegenation, or “the interbreeding of races.” I hardly see the difference between prejudice against black people and prejudice against gay people, but maybe my “values” are fucked up.
Child-Rearing & Procreation
Fortunately the bill forbidding artificial insemination of unmarried women died in committee. That doesn’t change the fact that some dude (and rest assured it WAS a dude) actually proposed it. The bill was most likely designed to prevent lesbian couples from having children, but it’s patently offensive to single women everywhere. Wait, I can’t have a baby AND I can’t have an abortion? Make up your mind, Republicans!
Of course, if you ask Republicans, I shouldn’t (hypothetically) be having sex in the first place. Sex is for procreation, and the only people who should be procreating are those who have entered into the sacred covenant of marriage. Hence the promotion of abstinence in schools and the denial of facilities use to the plethora of groups that “encourage or promote sexual activity by unmarried minor students.” Seriously, where ARE these groups? Can anyone name one? I’ve been in numerous schools, as both a student and a teacher, and I have yet to encounter a club or organization that promotes any kind of sexual activity. Hell, why in the world would kids sit around after school and DISCUSS sex when they could just go home and HAVE it? Politicians: drop by a school sometime, talk to the kids for twelve seconds or so. It might save you the trouble of writing such silly bills. And PS: I hate to be a stickler, but this one’s unconstitutional too. If a school allows one club or group to use its facilities, it has to provide equal access to all other clubs or groups.
The bill in question was proposed by Del. Scott Lingamfelter (from Woodbridge -- my sister probably voted for him) and “requires that any family life education course including a discussion of sexual intercourse emphasize that abstinence is the accepted norm and the only guarantee against unwanted pregnancy.” I can get behind this guy (repeat: guy) on abstinence being the only guarantee against unwanted pregnancy, but the accepted norm? Are you fucking kidding me?! Perhaps Del. Lingamfelter discovered some sort of wormhole and traveled back in time to. . .um. . .a time that doesn’t exist? Or maybe in a parallel universe (Einstein indicated such a thing was possible) abstinence is the accepted norm. But it’s certainly not the norm in this universe.
Here’s the thing about teenagers: they are going to have sex whether we like it or not, and they can either do that safely or not so safely. (For the record, I don’t think kids should be having sex. But that’s based on what I know about sex as an adult, and you couldn’t have convinced me of that as a kid. Okay, maybe you could have convinced ME, but you couldn't have convinced most of the kids I knew.) If all we tell kids about sex is not to have it, they are not going to know how to protect themselves from pregnancy and disease when they do have it. This is bad from a social perspective and bad from a public health perspective.
And here’s the other thing, Republicans: you can’t have it both ways. You can’t exclusively promote abstinence and then bitch about women using abortion as a form of birth control. Abstinence-based education just does not work. If we did a kick-ass job of promoting and providing access to birth control, there would be far less abortion because there would be far fewer unwanted pregnancies.
Unfortunately, for the most part we are not dealing with rational people but with religious fundamentalists, who argue that their way is A) the only right way and B) the historical American way. Which brings us back to Thomas Jefferson, an unwavering advocate of civil liberties who was devoted to the concept of separation of church and state (in fact, it's Jefferson who coined that phrase). In 1779, Jefferson crafted Virginia's Statute for Religious Freedom, which reminded citizens that "our civil rights have no dependence upon our religious opinions." In 1803, Jefferson wrote, "I never will, by any word or act, bow to the shrine of intolerance." And in 1807, long before the advent of the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection or any related Supreme Court decisions, Jefferson asserted that "an equal application of law to every condition of man is fundamental." Do you think HE would support any of these bills?
Wednesday, January 25, 2006
What Would Jefferson Do?