The Next Page: Same-sex marriage -- an informed conversation

And ... What they'll talk about: facts, figures, history, perspectives

Share with others:

Print Email Read Later

On Saturday, citizens across the state will gather at four universities to address a question that has occupied legislatures and courts across America for much of the last decade: Who should be allowed to marry?

But they will do more than have a chat. They will take part in a Deliberative Poll -- a new democratic decision-making process capable of articulating the informed voice of the people.

The initiative -- unprecedented in this commonwealth -- has been organized by the Southwestern Pennsylvania Program for Deliberative Democracy and the Pennsylvania Center for Women, Politics and Public Policy at Chatham University. The participants, drawn from a random sample of Pennsylvania voters, will be working in small groups with trained moderators. They will discuss the pros and cons of the proposed Pennsylvania Marriage Protection Amendments (see sidebar) and compare them with the recent decisions by courts and legislatures in Massachusetts and Vermont.

Deliberative Polling was developed by Jim Fishkin of Stanford University's Center for Deliberative Democracy. Over the last five years, on Carnegie Mellon's campus and in communities throughout the region, we have found that Deliberative Polling fosters a more robust and diverse civic engagement. It provides citizens the opportunity to roll up their sleeves and work together on a problem.

At the core of deliberative polling lies the belief that to develop an informed opinion citizens need two things: access to balanced information and the opportunity to engage in deliberation with a range of alternative views.

A Deliberative Poll incorporates several components to provide citizens with both.

For the event on Saturday, potential participants were randomly selected from the voter rolls in the communities surrounding four universities -- Carnegie Mellon, the Community College of Philadelphia, Shippensburg University and Slippery Rock University. Several weeks before the event, those who agreed to participate received a booklet of concise, balanced background information, which was developed by scholars from several universities. This booklet contains a review of the social, religious, and legal histories related to marriage and homosexuality, as well as a review of how these histories have informed the debates over same-sex marriage in Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Massachusetts. (You can get a copy of this booklet at

On the day of the event, participants will spend close to three hours deliberating in moderated small groups. After lunch, the small groups gather to pose their questions to a resource panel of experts. The panel act as teachers; they serve to inform and answer factual questions rather than to advocate for any particular position. At the end of the day, participants complete a confidential survey.

After the event, the results of the surveys are shared with regional media. It is important that these results echo throughout the larger community. It is also important that the results of this event actually influence policy debates. The district offices of state legislators surrounding the four schools have been notified ahead of time of these deliberations.

A Deliberative Poll requires a considerable commitment of time and energy to research and develop the background materials, develop surveys, recruit participants, and arrange for a balanced panel of experts: Saturday's event is the result of more than a year of preparation.

We have been pleased to discover that citizens will also commit significant amounts of time and energy to such a project. Almost 20 percent of those contacted agreed to participate, especially since they knew that they would be getting background information, join in a structured democratic dialogue, and influencing the larger policy debate.

Our work presents a challenge to the theory of "rational ignorance." Popular among some economists and public-policy experts, it provides a cost-benefit analysis to citizen engagement. It concludes that -- because citizens regard it as unlikely that their one vote will have any impact -- they will rationally choose not to pay the costs of becoming informed about issues.

Our experience, especially with the moderated small-group discussions, suggests otherwise. We have found that, when given the opportunity, people are eager to take on the work of citizenship.

The background materials and surveys that will be used at Saturday's event were tested last November at a Deliberative Poll that engaged 75 students, staff, faculty and alumni at Carnegie Mellon. As has been the case at many of our events, on that day, in the small groups, participants worked together to become informed about the issue.

Through their own stories, participants give life to the perspectives included in the background materials. At last November's event, for example, one group experienced the respectful disagreement between two devout Christians during a thoughtful discussion of Scripture.

These two breathed life into the religious perspectives contained in the background material by revealing what consequences these disagreements have in the real life of real people. Participants also often introduce new perspectives that did not make it into the background materials.

For example, in one small group during last November's poll, participants learned of the marriage traditions of other countries; they also engaged the issue of marriage from the perspective of a single person who was concerned that married people, no matter what their sexual orientation, will always enjoy benefits unavailable to single people.

Although provided with a moderator, participants often assume responsibility for managing their discussions, including taking the responsibility for ensuring that everyone gets the opportunity to contribute.

Deliberative Polls provide a venue for civic conversation that engages alternative views without devolving into the shouting, name-calling, preaching or speech-making that some may find characteristic of conversations on polarizing issues.

Consensus is not a goal of a Deliberative Poll, as participants record their individual opinions in the end-of-day survey. Rather than working to come to some agreement, participants work together to elicit individual perspectives on the issue.

By hearing diverse perspectives related through the experience of people with whom they may, ultimately, disagree, participants' opinions come to be informed as they learn the effects that proposed policies might have on the lives of their neighbors.

What they'll talk about: facts, figures, history, perspectives

Two weeks prior to the Deliberative Poll, participants received a booklet of background information. Prepared by an interdisciplinary team of scholars at Carnegie Mellon, this booklet incorporates input from historians, philosophers and theologians at several universities to provide a concise balanced representation of the issue.

This 36-page booklet is separated into two sections. In the first, participants get a review of marriage traditions and the history of marriage legislation in America. They also receive the religious perspective on marriage and homosexuality, which reflects the accepted views of Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders.

The arguments

Should the Constitution be amended so that marriage is defined as the union between a man and a woman?

Considerations in voting NO

• Civil rights

• Inclusiveness

• Inclusive marriage laws will promote societal stability

Concerns about voting YES

• Tradition(s)

• Family values

• Same-sex marriage will destabilize society.

Finally, they get a review of the social, medical and legal history of homosexuality in America. This last review traces the development of a perspective that argues for the need to secure the civil rights of homosexuals as one aspect of continued inclusiveness in America. In the second section of the booklet, participants learn how these histories and perspectives have informed the legislative and judicial debates in Vermont and Massachusetts, as well as the legislative debates over the Pennsylvania Marriage Protection Amendment.

At the end of the booklet, participants are provided with a visual representation of the legal debates -- an argument map -- to aid their deliberations. The map below is a composite of two separate and more detailed maps that are contained in the booklet.

The debate in Pennsylvania

In 1996, Congress enacted the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a law that bars federal recognition of same-sex marriages and allows states to pass similar laws. Currently, 41 states, including Pennsylvania, have such a law. Over the last decade, the supreme courts in several states, most notably Massachusetts, Vermont and California, have ruled DOMA laws unconstitutional.

As a result, the legislatures and voters in many states have considered passing a constitutional amendment that defines marriage as only the union between a man and a woman. There have been two attempts to pass such an amendment in Pennsylvania, one in 2006 (HB 2381) and another in 2008 (SB 1250). To pass a constitutional amendment in Pennsylvania, a bill proposing the amendment must pass in two sessions of the General Assembly and it then must be presented to voters as a referendum on the ballot.

Neither of the bills introduced in Pennsylvania have made it through the first step -- passage in a session of the General Assembly. In 2006, separate versions of HB 2381 passed in the House and the Senate. The language in the two versions differed. The senate version did not exclude the possibility of legal recognition of marriage-like relationships.

The House and Senate never met to rectify the differences between the versions. In 2008, the sponsors of SB 1250 asked that the bill be tabled in the Senate because they believed that the House would not take action the bill.

Robert Cavalier is co-director and Tim Dawson is document developer of the Southwestern Pennsylvania Program for Deliberative Democracy. Dr. Cavalier is a member of the Center for the Advancement of Applied Ethics and Political Philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University and Mr. Dawson is a Ph.D student in rhetoric at Carnegie Mellon. The Next Page is different every week: John Allison, , 412-263-1915


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?