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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?

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