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Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Gay Marriage in America

New York has now joined Connecticut, Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Washington DC in allowing gay couples the right to marry.  As expected, the reactions to this range from jubilation to rage, from optimism to cynicism.

This is not the first time this drama has played out in a state legislature and on the national stage, nor, I imagine, will it be the last.  What fascinates me is why this is an issue at all.

Its importance as an issue to those who support homosexuals' right to marry is obvious: marriage affords legal benefits, protections, and legitimization that cannot be achieved any other way, not to mention the emotional and psychological benefits of having a publicly recognized union (this list of reasons is in no way intended to be exhaustive).  That these benefits exist for some but not others seems to be inherently unfair and inconsistent with living in the Land of the Free.  That's all obvious.  But what's less obvious to me is why people want to restrict the freedom of gay couples.

The first and most obvious is the religious objection.  Many organized religions define homosexual behavior as sinful, and those who engage in it sinners.  Catholics and evangelical Christians have been the loudest religious voices in this debate.

Let me first speak to those whose faith permeates all aspects of their lives.  I recognize that you are not voting or speaking out of hatred, malice, or bigotry, but rather that your understanding of God's will for you personally and for all of humanity is your guiding principle.  I understand that when you vote, you vote your conscience, and that this nation allows you the right to voice your opinions and influence others in an effort to shape the society in which you live.  But please understand that the United States of America is not now nor has it ever been a Christian theocracy, and Christian definitions of sin and morality cannot and should not be our nation's rule of law.  Ignoring for the moment the existence of other religions in America, which Christian belief system could we all agree on to set the laws for the rest of us?  Catholics?  Evangelicals?  Seventh Day Adventists?  United Church of Christ?  Each one has a set of principles or practices unacceptable to other Christians, let alone to people of other faiths or of no faith.  The price of living in a place where we are free to practice our faith as we choose is that we cannot assume that our faith and practice is the rule and norm for all.  The law allows divorce, interfaith marriage, and, in some places, marriage between two consenting adults of the same gender.  But the law does not require any person whose faith rejects any of the above to get divorced or marry someone they find objectionable.  These laws allowing people to do things that your faith and understanding of God's will reject don't interfere with your practicing your faith.  (I understand that there is debate over whether nonprofit religious institutions can 'discriminate' against those who don't adhere to that religion's moral code, and let me state clearly that I fully support and defend those institutions' right to do so.  The acceptability of homosexuality within Christian communities is an entirely different discussion, to be addressed at another time.)  Bottom line: the first Amendment of the Constitution of the United State of America guarantees that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances."  Legally denying the freedom to marry based on your religious beliefs is tantamount to establishing your religious beliefs as law.  You are welcome to proclaim your beliefs and teach them within your churches, but they cannot be codified in law.

Let me now speak to those who raise religious objections to gay marriage but who don't themselves routinely darken the door of a house of worship or allow their faith and the bible to guide their own relationships, behavior, leisure activities, or spending decisions: knock it off!  You're giving the rest of us a bad name!  If your religion isn't strong enough to compel you to give more to charity than you spend at Starbucks, then you don't have the right to use it to dictate to someone else whom they can or cannot marry.  Quit hiding behind the easy objections and try to figure out what's really bothering you.

Removing theology (and theologically-based morality) from the question leaves us with a few more objections I've heard.

1) Marriage is a sacrament of the Catholic Church, and the First Amendment protects from government interference in church practices.

2) Homosexuality is against nature.

3) Gay marriage contributes to the 'normalizing' of homosexuality in the media and especially in state-run (i.e. public) schools.

4) Gay marriage is a slippery slope that could lead to the abolition of the age of consent and the legalization of bestiality and polygamy.

First regarding marriage as a sacrament of the Catholic Church:  The institution of marriage existed long before the Catholic Church, and still exists for non-Catholics.  I've not been Catholic for over two decades, and my husband has never been Catholic, yet we still had to apply for a marriage license from the state.  Just because the Catholic Church has chosen to understand marriage as a sacrament doesn't nullify its non-Catholic forms.  Allowing gays the right to marry does not impact the way the Catholic Church practices the sacrament, as the Catholic Church is still permitted the right to refuse to marry those who don't meet their criteria (just as laws permitting divorce do not compel the Catholic Church to marry individuals who have been divorced).

Regarding the claim that homosexuality is against nature:  Um, what are you basing this on?  Whether this behavior has been observed in the animal kingdom?  (Do we really want to take our lead from animals?)  If so, what about the two male penguins at the Bremerhaven Zoo in Germany who tried to mate with each other and then raised an abandoned chick together?  If you're basing it on the idea that sex is for procreation, then you're claiming that all sexual acts performed for pleasure and not for procreation are unnatural, which includes all sex performed by infertile couples, childless-by-choice couples, elderly couples, and anyone who uses birth control for any reason.  If you're referring to--to put it delicately--logistics and mechanics (insert your favorite nut and bolt analogy here) then you're claiming that all forms of oral or anal sex are unnatural, which puts a large number of married heterosexual couples committing these same unnatural acts which you want to ban.

Regarding the normalizing of homosexuality in the media and in schools:  Who decides what's normal?  'Normal' in society is an ever-changing idea.  Most middle-class families currently have both parents working outside the home.  That didn't used to be normal, but now it is.  It used to be contrary to 'normal' society (and illegal, for that matter) for couples of different races to marry.  Is that something we should be returning to?  It's only been in the last hundred years or so that adolescence has emerged as a distinct stage of life; before that it was normal and necessary for society to function that boys learned a trade at an early age while girls learned how to tend house, and once they were past childhood (anywhere from age twelve to seventeen) they married and assumed the responsibilities of full adulthood.  Again removing theologically-based morality (as well as the vague and unhelpful protest that "it's just wrong"), society is not harmed by showing healthy relationships between two adults of the same gender.  Personally I find the behavior normalized in most reality TV shows far more damaging to us as a society, but that, too, is an entirely different post.  And as far as not wanting it taught in schools, well, it's not the public schools' responsibility to uphold some groups' religious or moral beliefs.  There is nothing stopping you from homeschooling or enrolling your child in a private school more to your liking.

And finally there's the slippery slope.  Here there may be legitimate cause for concern.  While I don't believe there is much risk that the age of consent will be abolished, or that bestiality will be legalized (both involve 'entities' that are understood to be incapable of giving informed consent), this may open the door for a discussion about polygamy, polyandry, and other group marriages.  However, the issue before us at the moment is marriage between two people of the same gender, and I believe that we should consider that issue on its own merits.  Not doing so because we don't want to have a different conversation at a later date is simply illogical.

Most of the arguments against allowing gays to marry are weak and/or faulty.  The religious objections may be more solid, however they simply do not apply given the very intentional separation of church and state that the founders wrote into our governing documents.  There are some very serious problems facing this nation.  Can we please just allow gay couples the right to marry across the board, and refocus our energy and resources on addressing poverty, hunger, immigration, the economy, and the environment?  Please?  Pretty please?  With sugar on top?

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Faithfully Insane

One commonly accepted definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

I think I'm there.

I attended church this past Sunday morning, and I was very moved by the temple talk given by a young woman who is just finishing up her first year of college.  She was talking about campus ministry, and how helpful it's been for her.  She began sobbing as she described her difficulty transitioning into adulthood, and how angry she was at everyone else for being fine.  She described how she was attending church regularly and praying every day, and how angry she was at God for ignoring her prayers, and for being totally useless in comforting her and helping her to find her way.

I found myself sobbing along with her, my own eyes filled with tears, because I could relate.  I'm well beyond the whole transitioning-into-adulthood thing, but I'm very familiar with the feeling of not being fine when everyone else seems to be, and with yearning for God's mercy and receiving at best silence or at worst more pain.

She talked about how a peer minister with her college's campus ministry had reached out to her and got her involved in serving others.  She talked about how she began to see God's love in the people she helped, and the people she served with.  She talked about how she's now become a peer minister and council member herself, and how even though some of the work of leading the ministry is tedious (three-hour council meetings) she is still aware of God's presence and love in the people around her.

That's what I want.  That's what I've always wanted, first as a parishioner, then as a pastor.

I've never really experienced it.

I was humiliated and shunned by the Catholic church of my elementary school days.  I was ostracized by the Evangelical church of my high school days.  I got mired in the inertia at the UCC church of my discernment days.  I was too stressed and depressed to notice much good during my internship days.  I suffered through an utterly demoralizing personality conflict with the senior pastor at my first call.  I experienced it briefly when I served as an interim in New Hampshire, but that was by design temporary, and could not last.  Both I and my husband were violently rejected by the people at my most recent call.

From the UCC experience onward, I was in service with and to the people of God.  Each time I was hurt by the church--ignored, judged, or even outright attacked--and I wondered how God could let people who call themselves Christians do this to me.  Didn't they realize they were acting in God's name?  Didn't God realize it and want such misrepresentation to stop?  And each time I remembered that the church is a congregation of sinners (including me), and none of us is perfect.  So I'd do my best to forgive (I still have a long way to go for some), and I'd hope that I'd find a gathering of God's people who would welcome me, hurt and wounded as I am, and be Christ for me as I tried to be Christ for them, as I was taught all baptized Christians are called to do, ordained or not.  And I'd go someplace else, holding onto that hope, and get used and abused again.

And here I am, at a new congregation, getting misty-eyed at the testimony of a young woman who seems to have found what I've been seeking.  Yes, I'm a little jealous of her (back to that bit about everyone else seeming to be fine when I'm not).  And I found myself fighting the tears, because I didn't want anyone in the congregation to see me crying.  That's a weakness, and my experience tells me that church people exploit weakness just as well as non-church people do.  It's much safer to keep the walls up, and keep your vulnerability hidden.

The pastor came up to me afterwards and asked me how this morning went for me.  He knows some of my story, knows I'm pretty fragile right now, and I think he saw the wadded up tissue in my hand.  I told him that the service had struck a tender spot, and I was struggling a bit.  He assured me that I was in the loving arms of Trinity, and I was safe.

I might be insane, but I find myself daring to hope that he's right.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Welcome Back, Now Bend Over!

For all the years I spent trying to get out of Massachusetts, I was actually very happy to be returning.  I like the culture, I like the diversity, I even like the climate (yes, really!).  My new neighbors have been very nice, with several stopping by the house to introduce themselves, sometimes bringing bagels or brownies.  Old friends have contacted me to reconnect, and all in all we've felt very welcomed.

Until my husband went to register the cars at the RMV (Registry of Motor Vehicles, for any non-Massholes reading this).

We expected that there were going to be hefty registration fees, and while we certainly didn't like it, we were OK with it.  What we didn't expect, however, was the sales tax scam being run by the state with the full cooperation of licensed auto dealerships.

Let me back up.  In July of 2007, when Tom and I were legal residents of New Hampshire, we bought a car at a licensed dealership in Acton, MA.  Why did we go to Massachusetts to buy a car?  Because we were looking for a very specific type of car (Volvo station wagon of a certain vintage with a manual transmission), and we would go any reasonable distance to get it.  A dealership in Acton had it, so we bought it.

Now, usually you pay sales tax on a purchase at the point of sale.  Massachusetts changed the rules for vehicles, most likely because of all the Massholes who were going up to sales tax-free New Hampshire and buying their cars there.  So in Massachusetts, you pay sales tax for your car when you go to the RMV to register it.  Well, we lived in New Hampshire, so we registered it there, where we paid all applicable taxes and fees.  No, we didn't pay a sales tax, but we did pay a vehicle license tax which is based on the car's purchase price when it was new (even if you bought it used, which we did).  Not an insignificant amount of money.

Fast forward four years.  Since purchasing the car, we've moved to Iowa, New York, and now Massachusetts.  Each time we properly registered all of our cars, and we properly retitled them in each state.  My husband went to the RMV to do the whole song and dance again in Massachusetts (by now an old hand at it), and was told that he can't register the cars without a bill of sale for each vehicle.  Massachusetts didn't dispute that we legally own the cars (our valid New York titles are sufficient proof of that); they just wanted to ensure that we acquired them legally and paid all applicable taxes.  How conscientious of them.  So after much digging, we found the bills of sale from my car (bought four years ago) and one of Tom's cars (bought seven years ago), both obtained from licensed Massachusetts dealers and legally registered in New Hampshire at the time of purchase.  Our 'spare' car was purchased from a private party in New Jersey six years ago, and Tom had to provide that person's name and address.

Having to find that paperwork was bad enough, but here's where it got ugly.

The Mass RMV accepted the car purchased from a private party in New Jersey six years ago as being on the up and up, and just collected the regular registration fees that we were expecting to pay.  But the cars purchased in Massachusetts were another matter.  Buried deep in Massachusetts law is the following: "If a nonresident of Massachusetts purchases a motor vehicle in Massachusetts and takes title to and/or possession of the vehicle in Massachusetts, the sale is subject to the Massachusetts sales/use tax irrespective of whether the nonresident intends to use the motor vehicle within or outside Massachusetts."  (Chapter 64H)  How is this to be done if the purchaser is not registering the vehicle in Massachusetts?  Letter Ruling 77-13 states: "No dealer can make delivery of a motor vehicle to an out-of-state purchaser who takes delivery of the vehicle in Massachusetts without first receiving evidence that the required sales tax has been paid.  This payment is made on Form ST-7R at either the registry or any state tax office and the dealer must retain evidence of payment in case of an audit."  In other words, the dealerships were legally required to fill out this form and inform us of our tax liability, and then NOT release the titles to us until we could prove that we'd paid the required tax.  Neither of them did that.  They just took our cash and gave us the titles, with no hint that there was anything more we needed to do.

So when Tom went to register the cars and produced bills of sale from Massachusetts dealers, he was informed of his tax liability, along with the nice detail that we were now also on the hook for penalties and interest, plus we would be assessed at the current 6.25% rate, not the 5% sales tax rate that was in effect at the time of purchase.  The penalties and interest more than doubled what we owed for my station wagon.  Did the RMV care that the dealerships were negligent in their legal responsibilities?  Not their problem, mon.  Furthermore, the woman Tom dealt with at the RMV went on a bit of a rant about how this happens all the time, and how few if any dealerships comply with this requirement, leaving people like us screwed for hundreds or even thousands of dollars more than they should have paid.  (You know it's bad when an RMV employee is doing your complaining for you!)  The biggest victims, according to the woman at the RMV, are retirees who split their time between Massachusetts and Florida.

This isn't a new requirement.  That letter ruling I referenced dates back to 1977, and it hasn't been superseded.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts doesn't bother enforcing this law because it's a cash cow for them.  Enforcement would cut their revenue drastically.  So instead they stick it to people who would  be happy to comply with the laws if the people responsible for informing us of them actually did what they were supposed to do.  After all, if ignorance of the law is no defense, and violation of the law results in higher revenues, of course they want to keep people as ignorant as possible!

Massachusetts does have a reciprocal relationship with most states.  If this whole thing had happened this way except we'd lived in New York (which also collects sales tax at the time of registration) instead of New Hampshire, then Massachusetts would have credited us with the amount of tax we'd paid in New York and only charged us the difference (plus penalties and interest on that difference), if any.  But they don't recognize the vehicle license tax we paid in New Hampshire, because technically it's not a sales tax, so we're considered delinquent on the whole amount.

If we had known about this at the time we purchased my station wagon, we would have paid the $50 or $100 to have the dealership deliver the car to us in New Hampshire, which, according to Massachusetts General Laws, would have exempted us from the tax liability entirely.  But we weren't informed, and the dealership illegally released the title to us when we picked up the car in Acton, so now the state gets hundreds of extra dollars.

The obvious thing would be for us to go after the dealerships themselves, if the state won't.  Unfortunately, both dealerships have since closed, even though at least one of them is currently operating in a new location under a new name (same owner).  But it's legally a different entity, and therefore not responsible for the actions of its former existence.  How convenient.

Yes, this has turned into more of a rant than I'd intended, but it's really frustrating to get hit with a four-figure registration fee that should have been half of that when you've tried to do everything right.  It's not like the state caught up with us after we spent years flouting the law; the law was concealed from us by the dealerships' illegal actions, and by the failure of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts to enforce their own 30+ year old law.

Massachusetts, I realize you're having trouble balancing your books, along with virtually every other state in the union (except North Dakota, I think).  But please don't attempt to solve your fiscal woes by screwing over your citizens.  Taxes are bad enough; partnering with auto dealerships to stick consumers with exorbitant penalties is just obscene.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Not Such a Simple Question

Where are you from?

It seems like such a simple, basic, innocuous question.  Where are you from?

What is the information sought by asking this question?  Does the asker want to know where I was born?  Where I live currently?  What city/state/region/country/continent/planet plays a major role in defining my identity?

I've struggled frequently when asked this question.  Most of my life has been spent in the Boston area, and how I've answered this question has depended on the zip code I was physically standing in when I was asked.  If I was somewhere in the Boston area and I was asked the question, I usually answered with the name of the city or town I resided in at that moment.  If I was anywhere outside of the greater Boston area, I answered by saying, "I'm from Boston," even though I've never actually lived in Boston proper.  I've lived in places temporarily (summer jobs or internships out of state), and I've lived in places where the culture was so discordant with my own that I felt I had to explain myself: "Well, I live in such and such, but I'm actually from there and so."  I lived in one place (South Dakota) where my state of origin (Massachusetts) was so distrusted that I answered with the name of the state I'd lived in most recently (Iowa).  [Even though I'd long since lost my accent and probably could have passed for an Iowan, my internship supervisor ratted me out!]

So here's the long answer to the question of where I'm from (partly to document the insanity of my life, and partly to attempt an honest answer to the question above).  To keep this to a reasonable length, this is a list rather than a narrative.  Each listing indicates a separate address.  (If I lived there for at least three months, even if I had another residence, it made the list.  If I lived there for less than three months, but had my mail sent there and had no other address, it also made the list.  Different dwellings on the same college campus are listed separately, because if I had to pack up my crap and move it, it counts, dammit!)

CHILDHOOD
1. Arlington, MA
2. Arlington, MA
3. Arlington, MA
4. Arlington, MA
5. Providence, RI (one semester)
6. Amherst, MA (one semester)

ADULTHOOD
7. Arlington, MA
8. Arlington, MA
9. Arlington, MA (same as #7--my first attempt at solo living failed and I moved back home)
10. Somerville, MA
11. Everett, MA
12. Acton, MA
13. Shirley, MA
14. Leominster, MA
15. Leominster, MA
16. Allston, MA
17. Ferryville, WI (summer only)
18. Dubuque, IA
19. Binford, ND (summer only)
20. Dubuque, IA
21. Bloomington, IL (summer only)
22. Edgemont, SD
23. Dubuque, IA
24. Perry Hall, MD
25. Perry Hall, MD
26. Ocean Springs, MS
27. Medford, MA
28. Revere, MA
29. Marshfield, MA
30. Nashua, NH
31. Dubuque, IA
32. Moville, IA
33. Big Flats, NY
34. Harvard, MA

OK, I need to take a moment to go and cry a little bit. [sob, sniffle, sob]  I'm back.  No wonder I have such a visceral reaction to boxes!

Anyway, the truth is that all of these places have played a part in who I am, and have helped me discover who I'm not.  There are places on that list that I remember fondly, and there are others that I'll go out of my way to avoid ever going near again.

My current residence in Harvard is not permanent, but hopefully it's not short term, either (I know, I've said that before!).  And hopefully our next move will be the last one, and still in this general area.  Because if you ask me now, "Where are you from?" I answer simply; I answer proudly.

I'm from Boston.