Wind of change comes sweeping down the plain

My home state of Oklahoma made big news Tuesday when a federal judge struck down the state's ban on same-sex marriage.

The New York Times noted that the ruling occurred in the "heart of the Bible Belt," while The Associated Press characterized Oklahoma as "the buckle of the Bible Belt." (Religion angle, anyone?)

For the Tulsa World — whose banner headline today proclaimed "Gay marriage wins" — the ruling hit especially close to home, and not just because a Tulsa-based judge made the ruling. Two of the four plaintiffs are World editors, a connection that — to its credit — the Tulsa newspaper made clear in its story.

A friend of mine who works for the World remarked on his Facebook page that "it's not often you walk into the newsroom and watch news happen in front of your face. Like national news kind of stuff."

From The New York Times story:

“We’re jubilant, we’re over the moon,” said one of the plaintiffs, Sharon Baldwin, 45, who has lived with her partner and co-plaintiff, Mary Bishop, 52, for 17 years.

The two both work as editors at The Tulsa World newspaper and had just arrived at work on Tuesday afternoon when the city editor told them of the decision.

“We’re taking the day off,” Ms. Baldwin said.

In the major outlets, the first-day news coverage focused on the national ramifications of the decision, and rightly so. CNN described the ruling as "yet another victory for same-sex marriage supporters." The Washington Post termed it "the latest in a string of recent court decisions that have challenged such prohibitions."

But a few news organizations — including the AP — delved into the meat of U.S. District Judge Terence Kern's 68-page ruling:

Kern said the ban violates the U.S. Constitution's equal protection clause because it precludes same-sex couples from receiving an Oklahoma marriage license. In his 68-page ruling, Kern frequently referenced U.S. Supreme Court decisions issued last summer on gay marriage. He also took a shot at Oklahoma's high divorce rate, noting that "excluding same-sex couples from marriage has done little to keep Oklahoma families together thus far."

"Exclusion of just one class of citizens from receiving a marriage license based upon the perceived 'threat' they pose to the marital institution is, at bottom, an arbitrary exclusion based upon the majority's disapproval of the defined class," Kern wrote. "It is also insulting to same-sex couples, who are human beings capable of forming loving, committed, enduring relationships."

At one time, Oklahoma ranked No. 2 in the nation in divorce — a fact that I explored in a 2002 series when I served as religion editor of The Oklahoman:

Experts cite the state’s low per-capita income – which ranks 43rd in the nation – and a tendency of Bible Belt couples to marry young as reasons many marriages fail.

Just last month, Christianity Today reported that Oklahoma's taxpayer-funded effort to reduce divorce had failed. "More than a dozen years and $70 million still result in America's third-highest divorce rate," the magazine said.

From today's front-page story in The Oklahoman:

After dissecting the arguments supporters voiced to justify the ban, Kern said that “moral disapproval of homosexuals as a class, or same-sex marriage as a practice, is not a permissible justification.”

Moreover, he said, protecting the sanctity of marriage wasn't a valid reason for the ban, given Oklahoma's high divorce rate of opposite-sex couples, and encouraging procreation wasn't logical either since opposite-sex couples aren't required to say they'll produce offspring in order to get a marriage license.

But lest anyone jump to the easy conclusion that there's no difference between people sitting in the pews and everyone else when it comes to divorce, be sure to read Religion Newswriters Association president Bob Smietana's recent Facts & Trends piece on "bad stats."

What's next? I'd love to see reporters interview Oklahoma religious leaders — on both sides of the same-sex marriage debate — in light of the judge's comments.

Stay tuned.

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