Saturday, November 15, 2008

Marriage, the Law, and Doing the Right Thing Twice

Did you happen to catch Keith Olberman's Special Commentary on the passage of Prop 8 in California? It's passionate, articulate, bordering on brilliant. I can't figure out how to share it directly in this blog so please click on the link to watch.

I cannot be silent on this issue. Like Mr. Olberman, I'm not gay nor is anyone in my immediate family. But this isn't just a gay issue. It's a human issue, universal and timeless. And unless we keep the momentum headed toward positive change, it will remain a universally unfair, unjust, and just plain wrong issue.

My stance on this issue is simple and straightforward:

Marriage should be defined by federal law, consistant in all states and territories, and should consist of a set of binding legal agreements to which applicants agree and are held accountable. The government should not get involved in defining the relationship or who can participate. As long as all parties meet the legal requirements (primarily age and the ability to contract), government has no responsibility and no right to place any further restrictions on the arrangement.

If faith-based organizations want to further define the relationship according to their beliefs, so be it. As precedent, the Catholic church has long refused to recognize marriages that don't meet the requirements of the faith, even when those marriages are perfectly legal from a civil perspective. The consequences of the Church's approval or disapproval are only relevant to the practitioner from a personal, spiritual standpoint. Any religious institution should be free to use whatever moral compass they possess to decide if they and their god(s) approve of the union, but they should have no say in the legal aspects.

Here's how I get there:

Legal marriage in the United States is first and foremost a property agreement. Under our current system of employer-sponsored health care benefits, it also provides a consistent framework for determining who can be considered a dependent for the purposes of insurance coverage. It establishes a next-of-kin relationship wherein spouses have first and final say in certain health care decisions, hospital visitation rights, and so forth. And there are tax provisions for married couples to lessen the tax impact on two income families.

Nothing about legal marriage as it is currently defined has anything to do with relationship, love, comittment, or morality. It has to do with legal rights and contracts. And nothing about those legal rights and contracts has anything to do with the gender or orientation of the participants. People of the same gender are just as capable of fulfilling all the obligations inherent in legal marriage as are one-man-one-woman couples.

Where we've gone astray is allowing the religious definition of marriage - specifically the mainstream Christian definition - to creep into the legal definition. We have abandoned the constitutional principal of separation of church and state and given that power over to religion. Shame on us!

Interestingly, that influence seems only to have gone so far as to restrict who is allowed to participate. It hasn't done anything at all to enforce the other ideals of Christian marriage. The government doesn't care one bit whether people who apply for a marriage license have been married before, as long as they've fulfilled the legal obligation to divorce. There is no government mandate that individuals share the same faith, that they love, honor, cherish, or respect one another. Marriages of convenience or for economic considerations are common. The only absolute requirements are that the couple be of legal age, not currently married to someone else, and that there be one man and one woman.

The age requirement makes sense from a legal standpoint; binding contracts require that parties be of legal age. Not being married to someone else is debatable, but the argument can be made that allowing multiple partners would require rewriting estate law among others, so I'll concede that one temporarily even though it, too, is a moral judgement. The one for which I can find no sustainable argument whatsoever is gender.

Why? Why does the government care who enters into the agreement? Why do we insist on denying the legal rights of marriage to anyone who is willing and capable of agreeing to the terms of the contract? We let anyone with decent credit and income buy a house, a contract that lasts longer than most marriages. When you strip away the moral fru-fru attached to marriage, what's left is no different than any other contract. If you can buy a house without a genital check, why can't you enter into a marriage contract without one? From a legal standpoint, the government has no business checking genitals for a contract that has to do with property and taxes.

As important as this issue is to gays and lesbians who wish to enter into legal marriage, it's even more important in the bigger picture. If we allow religious beliefs to shape government policy, we will eventually be a religious state. Notice I said we. America is a democracy and we are responsible for blurring the line between church and state. If, in fact, the majority of people support something so clearly unconstitutional, we have lost our own compass. We're giving up our rights as we wander blindly, thoughtlessly accepting what has seemingly always been. Every erosion of that all-important separation erodes the ability of each of us to choose our spiritual path and live it without fear.

I support the right of every adult in this country to marry whomever they choose. If I believed it morally wrong for same sex couples to marry, I would still support their right to do so. It harms no one and the disapproval of it is based solely on religious beliefs which, under the Constitution of the United States, are not to be imposed by governement. In protecting the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, we're protecting our own rights to worship and live as we choose.

It's doing the right thing twice, a double good too important to be quiet about.


  1. Here Here!!

    You are right on the money! And this echos my thoughts exactly as posted on my own blog and flickr!

  2. Anonymous5:21 PM

    Well, we've had equal marriages here in Canada for several years now, pretty well as you described, and our society has not collapsed into chaos, the churches have not disintegrated (although a couple are groaning from the difficulty of deciding whether to sanction same-sex unions or not) and generally, life goes on. It's a big thing for gays and lesbians, and no skin off anyone else' butt. Just like the Equal Rights Amendment to your constitution (you still don't have that, do you ? original equipment when our Constitution was officially adopted in 1982) or the abortion law (we don't have one, abortion's completely legal) - a strange and fearful minority hijacking the rights of everyone else. Private morality should not dictate public policy, nor should public policy interfere with private beliefs and practices (with full consent etc).

    Just seems sensible to me, from the northern territory.

  3. Anonymous5:22 PM

    Hear, hear!

    I can't believe this is even an issue. What in the world makes one person think he has the right to deny another the right to marry whomever he or she chooses? Especially on such stupid grounds.

  4. Thanks for the comments, everyone.

    Deacon, I've read your blog and you're saying it loud and clear, friend. Read Deacon's post here:

    Sam, thanks for the northern neighbor perspective; sounds like a constititutional platform based on respect and the rights of citizens to make moral decisions for themselves. Your comment that your society has not collapsed into chaos is highly appropriate, given that such is exactly what some of the more extreme opponents of gay marriage predict. Hogwash!

    Criss...excellent question, and one we've had to ask over and over when personal freedoms are denied. How does this happen?

    Spread the word, people...keep asking the questions, stirring the pot. Words have power. We can make a difference.

  5. Thanks for the thoughtful piece. Eloquently put.


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