In Defense of Marriage--For All
On Tuesday, three states passed propositions that would limit the rights of same-sex couples to marry. The next day, at my Facebook page, I posted a status that said, "Naomi is exhausted and sad."
My friend Elizabeth asked, "why sad?"
And I responded thusly: "I'm sad because there are still so many people determined to deny others the right to marry. three states yesterday...and because bigotry makes my heart ache. And because someone blew up a predominantly black church near here this morning. And because, truth be told, I really, really, really wanted to be celebrating the first woman President today, and while I threw my full support behind Obama--and am humbled and proud and full of respect for the progress we've made as a nation in electing him--I ache with a longing so profound I can barely articulate it for the day when this same sense of victory and equality will be shared by women."
I also changed my profile picture to the one you see above and joined a couple of Facebook groups that are rallying to repeal Prop 8 in California. The California proposition was especially upsetting because I used to call California home, and because two of my best friends were married there this summer, only to now experience the devastating news that their marriage vows may be rendered invalid.
And here's the beauty of Facebook. I was able to feel less alone in my grief and upset. I received coomfort from friends and was also able to offer it to others. And I also received this note from a high school friend that I enjoy connecting with on Facebook, but who I haven't seen in more than a decade.
She identifies as "moderate/conservative--purple," Christian, and is married with a young child. She wrote today to ask me this:
"enlighten me please....why is it okay for homosexuals to reject christianity and our God, which is where marriage gets its origin, but it's called bigotry or discrimination for christians to ask that they establish civil unions for their relationships instead of marriages (which is a christian institution)? if we are to respect all people equally, does that not go both ways? i'm not saying that their relationships should have any less legal standing, they should have rights too, as everyone should, but if they so reject the premise of marriage, which is between a man and a woman according to God and christian principles, why do they so crave to have their union referred to as a marriage, not a legal union.
i'm not trying to sound mean or better then anyone, i'm legitmately asking a question from someone whom i respect and believe is more enlightened then i am on the subject. thanks naomi."
I am sharing my response to my friend here, and welcome your comments--and also encourage the sharing of my response with others. Forward along, if you see fit.
Here is what I told her (my response was so long I had to break it into parts in order to send it through Facebook):
"I am so glad you asked...
I think the answer to your question lies in our understanding of what marriage is.
You are defining marriage as being “between a man and a woman according to God and Christian principles,” but, while that may be true in your church and for you personally, it’s not actually true universally and should not be a lawful definition of marriage under civil law. Would you say to a Jewish couple that their marriage is invalid because it was not made according to Christian principles? Certainly not. (I hope not, anyway!)
I understand your attachment to the definition of marriage as being according to God and Christian principles—it’s very important to you--but marriage pre-dates Christianity and it also exists in myriad valid forms outside Christendom. Thousands of people get married every day, all over the world—and in our own country—in faiths other than Christianity and their marriages are still “marriages” despite not having a single wit to do with Christian principles. If a Buddhist couple in Japan or a Muslim couple in Afghanistan or a Jewish couple in Israel or a pagan couple in Ireland or a Hindu couple in India or a couple of secular yahoos in England (or California, for that matter) get married, they definitely do not define their union as being according to “God and Christian principles,” but those marriages would all be recognized as marriages in the United States.
Just as being married—and calling it that--is incredibly important to you, it’s equally important to non-Christian and same-sex couples who may hold different definitions dear to them, based on their personal or religious beliefs. How would you feel if you couldn’t call your husband your husband any more because some other religious group said so? (You’d feel frustrated, dismayed, angry, and awful, I expect—and rightly so.)
Giving same-sex marriages a different word is exactly the same as giving black Americans separate train cars, schools, and water fountains. To give it another name is to make it less-than, separate—and as Barack Obama (and the Supreme Court) will tell you in a heartbeat—separate is inherently unequal.
A different path
There are, essentially, two kinds of marriage, religious and civil. At issue here is only the legal contract of a civil marriage, as recognized by individual states, not the religious ceremony. (The Defense of Marriage Act prevents same-sex marriages from being acknowledged across state borders, so for the purposes of our discussion today, the issue is at the state level.)
The two kinds of marriage, religious and civil, often overlap one another—most Americans do both--but they are two separate and distinct events. One happens in a church, synagogue, or other sacred venue; the other happens at city hall (or wherever you file your marriage license). They are related, but they are not the same thing. For instance, it’s the civil marriage that you have to break when you divorce, not the religious one. (That’s why you need a lawyer.)
What same-sex couples are seeking is equal treatment under the law. They want to legally marry, not according to God and Christian principles, but according to a lawful civil definition of marriage.
There, but for grace
You, as a Christian, understand marriage to be one thing. You have a strong and clear belief about what marriage means in your faith, but each faith sets its own parameters for what marriage is and what it means.
Your idea is vastly different from my Mormon friends who were sealed in a private ceremony in a temple for all eternity. And it is also different from my Jewish friends, my Jehovah’s Witness friends, my Buddhist friends, my non-religious friends, my Wiccan or pagan friends, and even from some of my other Christian friends—the Unitarian Universalists, for instance. In some faiths, marriages are arranged. In some, there need not be witnesses. In others, a dowry is still required. Because there are so many different forms of marriage based on faith, it is not fair—or legal, in my opinion—for any one religious group to control what marriage (or any other religious practice) means to other religious or non-religious groups. Just as a church has a right to baptize its members by dipping them in a river instead of anointing them with oil or holy water (or whatever other form they find sacred) at whatever age they feel is appropriate, if a religion wants to allow same-sex marriages, then that is its right; if it doesn’t, then that is its right, as well. But when it comes to rights granted by the states, those should absolutely not be dependent upon one religious group’s interpretation of the right.
When I had a Jewish girlfriend, for instance, I could not have married her in her temple—not because I was a woman, but because I’m not Jewish. No one is trying to pass a law saying that Rabbis have to marry non-Jews in temple—nor, for that matter, that they have to marry same-sex couples. That’s entirely up to them. Decisions about religious marriage belong in the faiths; decisions about legal contracts of marriage belong with the states (or, I would argue, at the federal level, but again, that point is moot for now).
To have and to hold
What is particularly egregious about the Prop 8 situation in California is that opponents of same-sex marriage, motivated by religious doctrine, voted to amend the state’s constitution in order to explicitly deny the right to marry for same-sex couples. The U.S. Constitution and the state constitutions are documents designed to grant rights, not take them away. It sets a dangerous and disturbing precedent to use the Constitution to single out a group of people and deny them a civil right based solely on one religion’s interpretation of marriage.
The First Amendment was designed to prohibit the establishment of a national religion, or the preference of one religion over another, or the preference of religion over non-religion. To use a religious definition for state marriage contracts is to impose one religious view on the populous, flying in the face of what is arguably the most important tenet of our entire society (along with freedoms of speech, press, and assembly).
If you don’t believe your church should marry same-sex couples, then I would argue that’s a battle to fight in your congregation or with the leaders of your faith, not something that should happen at the constitutional level.
We are all granted by our beautiful, necessary, incredible Constitution the right to practice our faiths freely. In fact, it’s so important that it’s the very first line of the very First Amendment. This is true not just for marriage-related rituals, but for all sorts of other things as well. My Mormon friends don’t baptize their children until the age of eight, for instance, and are forbidden from drinking hot beverages or alcohol. I assume that you baptized your child sometime shortly after she was born and perhaps, if you are Catholic, she will have a confirmation—or if you’re not, she won’t.
I think to get a good view of the issue, if one is in the majority religion (as you are), one has to try to take a big step back from one’s religious beliefs, take a deep breath, and then imagine what life would be like if one were in the minority. What if, for instance, Mormonism were the dominant religion in our country? It is, after all, the fastest growing religion in the world and it spent a reported $22 million backing Prop 8 in California. What if, after marriage, leaders of this religion moved on to amend the Constitution of your state to ban alcohol (we tried this once, remember, and it was the origin of organized crime) or to ban coffee (egad!) or to remove the right to baptize a child within its first year of life, etc.? What if this were about requiring or banning circumcision?
I assume this would bother you. And it should bother you. At its center, the United States is a place where we should be able to live free from religious oppression. It is the very thing the pilgrims came seeking when they fled; it is part of what we will celebrate on Thanksgiving. (And, it’s what the ancestors of my beloved Mormon friends were seeking when they fled violence and persecution to go west and eventually create a safe haven for themselves in Salt Lake. Unfortunate that now this church is apparently leading a movement to oppress others…)
Religious freedom is an essential part of what makes our country great. Separation of church and state means that if you want marry in your church, whatever wacky church that might be, then “mazel tov!” The state won’t stop you. So, why should the church be able to say to the state, “No way, no how, you can’t ‘marry’ unless you do it our way”?
I believe that every adult has a right to make a loving commitment to another consenting adult to join their lives and finances together as spouses and to make a family, if they so choose--and to call this marriage. Remember, it used to be illegal for a black person and a white person to be wed, but now we acknowledge that those people have a right to marry—regardless of their faith. I believe same-sex couples are entitled to this same basic human right.
For me, it’s not about homosexuality. I would be just as sad today if someone from another faith were preventing you from legally wedding your husband; I would fight for your right to marry, too.
What is at issue here is that people—of any gender—who wish to marry should have the right to do so, even if it offends or upsets members of certain religious groups. Same-sex couples seeking a legal marriage are not “rejecting Christianity and your God” as you say. They are trying to embrace a life of romantic and social commitment. As difficult as it may be to let go of your religious perspective, this is a civil rights issue, not a religious issue. The voters are not trying to amend your church’s canon; they are trying to amend a state’s constitution. And this is wrong.
I welcome your feedback and hope I’ve answered your question. :-)>>I haven't heard back from my friend yet, but what I love about this is that she respected me enough to ask--and I care for and respect her enough to answer. I hope that my respect came through in my response.
As President-elect Obama says, "I will listen, especially when we disagree."
On whichever side of this issue you stand, I hope that you will really and truly open your ears and your heart and listen to the voice of the other side--and speak with respect in return. It is my great hope that you will come to stand on the side of tolerance and human rights and equality. But, whether or not you do, the Obama Presidency is not just about an African-American family in the White House; it's not just about ending war in Iraq or helping the middle class or resolving our economic crisis. It's about this great, intangible thing that he articulated on election night. It's about becoming a new America--a United States of America--where we can achieve change; where we can be honest, even when it's difficult; and where we can listen, especially when we disagree.