ECU religious studies professor Mary Nyangweso, right, prepares to speak about marriage rights during the ECU panel discussion on the issue April 15. ECU professor Hugh Lee, bioethics and interdisciplinary studies, is shown at left. (Photos by Cliff Hollis)

ECU experts discuss marriage rights

April 16, 2015

By Kelly Setzer
ECU News Services

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear legal arguments on marriage rights later this month, experts from East Carolina University hosted a panel discussion to explore the issue April 15.
Graphics shown by sociology professor Melinda Kane during the panel discussion demonstrate the evolution in state marriage laws over the past 20 years. While same-sex couples have the right to marry in North Carolina, the state legislature is considering legislation that would allow magistrates to opt out of performing marriages if they object to marrying same-sex couples. Click on each image for a larger view. (Graphics courtesy of Pew Research Center)

The public event, titled “Continuing Debates Around Federal, State and Individual Rights: The Case of Marriage in the United States,” drew approximately 150 attendees and featured interdisciplinary faculty discussing the topic within social, legal and cultural contexts.

Associate professor of sociology and event organizer Melinda Kane said she has encountered a lot of confusion and questions about recent changes in marriage laws when talking with students and community groups over the past year.

“The motivation for [organizing] the panel was to provide a venue where faculty could draw upon their expertise to give background information on these debates, and to create a space where audience members could ask questions,” Kane said.

The constitutionality of marriage bans in four states – Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee – is set to be reviewed by the Supreme Court on April 28. The ruling on these cases has the potential to grant marriage rights to same-sex couples throughout the U.S. Currently, same-sex couples can marry in 37 states and Washington, D.C.

Panelists represented varying academic backgrounds, which allowed them to explore different facets of marriage throughout history. Each panelist presented their professional viewpoint for 10 minutes, followed by an open question and answer session from the audience.

Panelist Hugh Lee, representing bioethics and interdisciplinary studies, addressed the legal reasoning for a modern debate of the issue.

“Marriage, both as a civil institution and a legal status, existed well before the founding of our country,” Lee said. “However, the U.S. Supreme Court jurisprudence early on did not significantly address [marriage] or what it meant in any meaningful way that would be helpful to the discussion that we’re having today.”

Joining Kane and Lee on the panel were Christine Avenarius, anthropology; Mary Nyangweso, religious studies; Marieke Van Willigen, sociology; Ed Wall, philosophy; and moderator Jonathan Morris, political science.

“This is what we do well as a public university,” said Thomas Harriot College of Arts and Sciences Dean William Downs. “We take the pressing issues of the day and tackle them from multidisciplinary perspectives. And we do so in a way that provides analysis, context and understanding.”

Pictured below, an overflow crowd came out to listen as ECU experts discussed marriage rights in advance of upcoming arguments on marriage rights to be presented before the U.S. Supreme Court.