ESSAY- Marriage problem? Yes, but it's not same-sex unions

In 1992, then-Vice President Dan Quayle criticized the producers of the popular TV sitcom Murphy Brown for portraying the show's lead character "mocking the importance of a father, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another ‘lifestyle choice.'" Quayle insisted that such a storyline undermines the importance of the traditional family.

The family issue has once again emerged with President Bush's proposed Constitutional Amendment banning gay marriage. The Amendment, which was defeated in the Senate on June 7, defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

During his June 5th press conference, President Bush attempted to capitalize on this issue with evangelicals, one of his strongest bases of supporter. Indeed, one leading voice of the evangelical right claims that the battle for the definition of marriage is more "significant to our culture" than the war on terror. Appealing to his conservative base, Bush declared that America's family values are at stake, insisting that the only way to protect America's most basic unit is to create a national ban forbidding same-sex marriage. "This national question requires a national solution," said Bush. "And on an issue of such profound importance, that solution should come not from the courts but from the people of the United States."

The political rhetoric surrounding the issue seems to suggest that the Federal Marriage Amendment is necessary in order to prevent activist judges from destroying the foundation of the American family and undermining the will of the American people. However, on this issue, the American people are sharply divided. A Gallup poll conducted last month shows that 50 percent of Americans favor the Federal Marriage Amendment, while 47 percent oppose it. And according to a 2004 survey conducted by the George Barna Research Group, the strongest support for the amendment comes from evangelical Christians, who weigh in at 83 percent.

Supporters of the Amendment insist that same-sex marriage threatens the very foundation of the traditional family. But a quick glance at today's American family, which is far from traditional or cohesive, shows that the issue of same-sex marriage is merely a small symptom of a much bigger problem. For instance, America's divorce rate is close to a staggering 50 percent. Many experts point to financial struggles, marriage at young ages, work stress, and lack of education as key contributors to this alarming statistic.

Furthermore, while evangelicals in the so-called "Bible Belt" states have been leading the charge to protect and defend the institution of marriage, divorce rates in that region of America are higher than in traditionally liberal states. In fact, Massachusetts, which is the only state to officially recognize same-sex marriage under their laws, has one of the lowest divorce rates in the United States. At last count, Massachusetts' divorce rate is 2.4 per 1,000 people, while data complied by the U.S. Census Bureau shows that divorce rates among the Bible Belt states (Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Texas) are roughly 50 percent above the national average of 4.2 per 1,000 people.

Perhaps even more surprising are the divorce rates among professed evangelicals. A study released by the Barna Group in 2004 shows that the incidence of divorce among "born again Christians" is identical to "those who are not born again."

According to this survey, 35 percent of born again Christians who have married eventually divorce. That figure is identical to the married adults who do not identify themselves as "born again Christians." This same survey also indicates that relatively few divorced Christians got divorced before their religious conversion and that among divorced Christians, nearly one-quarter get divorced two or more times.

The concern for children is an important part of the debate over the concept of gay marriage. But like the current state of marriage in America, today's home life for children is far from traditional. For instance, in some states, such as Louisiana, New Mexico, Mississippi, Delaware and South Carolina, 42 percent of all children are born out of wedlock. The national average is a stark 36 percent.

Furthermore, 40 percent of unmarried couples who cohabitate have children in the house, which contributes to a disconnect among children between family and marriage. Likewise, almost half of all children have spent part of their childhoods in homes that do not include both biological parents. Thus, a major problem not addressed by many calling for a ban on gay marriage is the overwhelming problem in heterosexual families— among both evangelicals and non-evangelicals.

Clearly, if the problems in heterosexual families are not adequately addressed in the immediate future by those who say they are concerned with traditional families, what we know as the traditional family may soon be lost to us. With this in mind, we have to ask ourselves, is a federal ban against same-sex marriage the best remedy for the situation we face?

The author heads the Rutherford Institute, a non-profit legal defense group with an emphasis on religious liberty and civil rights issues.