|By A.D. Freudenheim||
20 April 2004
In thinking and arguing about gay marriage, those on both sides tend to be reduced to fighting over two basic issues, one of which is a philosophical/moral/religious argument about the validity of homosexual relationships in the first place, and the second concerns the rights, privileges, and benefits conferred by marriage. Both of these are legitimate issues, but they are also problematic, since they tend to lead to retrenchment to existing positions, rather than a seeking out of common ground. But there are some opportunities to cut through the noise, and work towards a realignment that could satisfy most (though likely not all) people.
The validity of homosexual relationships is the thorniest issue. Those opposed to accepting or legitimizing homosexuality itself rely on an assortment of sources to claim it is unnatural. Yet relying on historical texts (such as the Bible) to make contemporary moral distinctions creates other problems, since these sources also typically proclaim the acceptability of a number of other practices we now soundly reject, from slavery to stoning. Even those who would use these sources to discriminate against homosexuals rarely advocate for a return to a world where those attitudes towards African-Americans or notions of jurisprudence were commonplace. Once the literal, fundamentalist readings of such texts are negated, religious conservatives may have to settle for controlling the morals of their adherents rather than those of the broader society in which they live.
Which is exactly the jumping-off point for the second piece of this argument: along with pushing back on religionists to focus on the behaviors within their communities rather than on those of us outside of it, we should redefine marriage as it was: a religious ceremony, the consecration of a union in holy terms. While it has always had strong connections to property rights and other kinds of ownership indeed, religious marriage became accepted by the state precisely because it proved such an effective tool for helping to regulate the ownership of property among other things the evolution of marriage into a ceremony conducted by officials of the state (rather than merely accepted by it) is a relatively recent evolution, one with roots in the creation of common law and the slow divorce of state bureaucracies from official state churches.
If we put marriage back into an exclusively religious context, two things can happen. First, anyone who wants to get married can have this ceremony conducted by whatever religious leader is appropriate for their denomination, using whatever formal ceremonial process is subscribed to by that denomination. The impact for heterosexual couples will be minimal; this creates no substantive changes in their processes or marriages, other than putting the ceremony in an exclusively religious context. For homosexual couples the change is clear, and for the better: they can either get married or not, depending on the rules of their religion. This change puts marriage back where it belongs as a religious-community decision and religious communities should have a right to make freely the decisions about whom they will marry or consider members of their denomination.
People have a right to believe whatever they want, as long as it doesn't affect or harm someone else. Which is to say: if Catholics, or Evangelicals of one stripe or another, don't want to accept homosexuals or gay marriage or any other element of our society they shouldn't have to, as long as their discrimination does not place an onerous burden on society as a whole. Therefore those who want to be Catholic and gay can either a) choose one or the other, since the Church tends to see homosexuality and Catholicism as an either-or proposition, or b) decide to try to change their religion from within, accepting and acknowledging the conflict and struggle implied in that action. Members of more liberal religions, such as certain Methodist churches, branches of Judaism, or other groups would have the opportunity to marry depending on the rules of their denomination and community. In addition to re-asserting marriage as a religious ceremony, this approach is also consistent with the growth of religion in America in the last half-century: live and let live, each according to their own beliefs.
Meanwhile, for those couples gay or straight who either do not have a particular religious affiliation or who want to get married by a judge or other state official, these unions would be made official in a civil not religious ceremony, and would be called a civil union. These civil unions would carry all (without exception) rights, privileges, benefits, etc. of the religious unions known as marriage, but would be made official outside the rubric of any church ... and therefore free from the potential moral conflict with those religions that have any concerns about a particular couple, from religious inter-marriage to homosexuality.
In other words, we need to go back to basics, and put religion back where it belongs as a private matter and put marriage back where it belongs, which is under the rubric of religion. This system will safeguard the sanctity of marriage, for those concerned about such issues. It would also continue to protect property rights, safeguard children, and assure the same level of societal stability sought under the traditional rubric of marriage, by formalizing a couples bonds and obligations to each other. Marriage is an institution that, in the United States, is not doing very well anyway. This solution is a much better approach than focusing on homosexuals as some special class of people who need to be accommodated under a quasi-secular, religiously-driven system that is inherently opposed to making certain accommodations, and only makes them only slowly (if ever) and with great resentment. In tackling the issue of gay marriage, we have an opportunity to surpass both the successes and failures of the Civil Rights movement. Shouldnt we try?
Copyright 2004, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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