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A narrow miss on marriage amendment, 163 years ago

– The debate raging in the Indiana Legislature over banning gay marriage has become the central political issue of 2014. But it’s not the first time the state has weighed defining marriage in the state constitution.

Elkhart County Commissioner Mike Yoder, an amateur historian, recently unearthed what may have been the first attempt at a marriage amendment in Indiana, floated during the constitutional convention of 1851. Yoder said the current debate got him thinking about the creation of the state’s chief governing document ahead of his upcoming presentation before the Middlebury Chamber of Commerce.

“I’ve got a presentation at the annual meeting of the chamber in March, so usually those things cause you to do some research. I thought, since it looks like we’re going to be voting on a constitutional amendment, I started reading the Indiana constitution and the history of it,” he said. “I stumbled across (the 1851 proposal) and thought, `This is fascinating.”’

The amendment would have barred lawmakers from “impairing” the sanctity of marriage. “But no law shall ever be passed, in any manner impairing the unity and sacredness of the marriage relation,” read the proposal from Walter March, a delegate representing Grant and Delaware counties during the convention.

It was rejected by the delegates, 54-72. March, a Democrat and native of Massachusetts, played a key role in outlining the powers of the state’s judiciary system and would later go on to help found the Republican Party in Indiana.

More than 150 years later, it is another Democrat-turned Republican, Rep. Eric Turner, R-Cicero, driving the train on a marriage amendment – albeit with more gusto and significantly more debate than March faced.

That proposed constitutional ban is now being hashed out in the Indiana Senate with intense debate, lobbying and political maneuvers, and it could go before voters for approval as soon as November.

Minutes kept during the convention indicate March’s proposal received little debate, and Indiana historian Charles Kettleborough’s 1916 recounting of the convention offers little context. But that’s not to say the 150 delegates (a mix of Democrats and Whigs pre-dating the creation of the Republican Party) did not debate the role of marriage in society and the rules governing it.

“The overall concept there is, should this idea of some sort of a definition of marriage be placed in the constitution? And those delegates, at that time, said no,” Yoder said. “The question for our legislature now is `Why? What has changed over these years that suddenly we want to put some sort of marriage defining into our constitution?”’

Supporters of the proposed ban, House Joint Resolution 3, have argued that Indiana residents need to strengthen the existing definition of marriage by placing the ban in the constitution, thereby keeping a state court from allowing gay marriage. But a state constitutional amendment would do nothing to stop national headwinds, which both supporters and opponents of gay marriage expect will be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Yoder, a conservative Mennonite, said he has concerns with the state involving itself in a religious institution.

“I’m a little concerned about my fellow conservatives being so anxious to have the state define marriage,” he said. “From our point of view, as conservative Christians, it’s defined by the church.”

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