Day By Day© by Chris Muir.

Monday, May 23, 2005

Is gay marriage infringing on the separation of church and state?

I was struck by the quality of Jeff Jacoby’s article on the one year anniversary of the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s decision mandating gay marriage in that state. While Jacoby is personally opposed to gay marriage, he is able to recognize the humanity of those who seek its legalization, and to acknowledge the need many have to feel that they can participate in rituals common to most Americans:

None of this is meant to downplay the emotional importance that same-sex marriage has taken on for many gays and lesbians. It holds out the promise of "normalcy," of the kind of ordinariness that heterosexuals take for granted.
However, Jacoby points out that, in today's America, marriage is no longer a necessary adjunct to being "normal":
In America today no one needs a marriage license to form a lifelong union with a partner of the same sex. Gays and lesbians already have that right. What they don't have is the official stamp of approval that would establish, in Shelby Steele's words, ''the fundamental innocuousness of homosexuality itself."
He also challenges the fact that people loudly favoring gay marriage tend to paint all opponents as homophobes, with all the mean-spiritedness and hatred that term carries with it nowadays:
[S]o many supporters of same-sex marriage think that anyone who disagrees with them must be an ignorant bigot. Time and again, I have been told that my views on marriage are morally equivalent to the views of a segregationist on race, or a Nazi on Jews. It is remarkable: Express the conviction that marriage should mean what it has always meant -- the union of male and female -- and you are likely to be told that you are peddling hate. Of all the motifs that get played and replayed in the marriage debate, this one is the worst. For two reasons: First, because it is untrue. Marriage was not created to hurt homosexuals or enshrine bigotry in law. It did not become a universal human institution as an expression of animus. The core of marriage has always and everywhere been the pairing of a man and a woman because no other arrangement can do what marriage does: produce the next generation, bind men to the women who bear their children, and give boys and girls the mothers and fathers they need.
I happen to agree with Jacoby. I'm definitely not a homophobe, but I'm made very uncomfortable by this rush to gay marriage. Indeed, Jacoby's article led me to dig out, dust off, and improve one of my very early posts on the subject (written when I had no readers). My article focuses on what I think is a fundamental question: what is marriage?* Historically, marriage has always had two strands. One had to do with power and money. Women were chattel, and they brought with them to a marriage their father's/family's money and power. Royal marriages in Europe through the 19th century amply demonstrate this fact. Of course, while those were the most visible examples, all cultures have tied finance and marriage. In some cultures, the groom pays for the bride and in some the bride's family pays for the groom, but there is a commercial element. And to my mind, commerce is a function that can reside with the State. A subset of the commercial aspects of marriage, of course, is that marriage has to do with children. Once you (or your family) have bought a spouse, you want that money to go to your blood descendents. That need dovetails nicely with the fact that it takes a man and a woman to create a child that bears those bloodlines. The other strand of marriage in all cultures is, of course, religion. Wiggle out of it as much as you want, but the fact is that the Judeo-Christian tradition has God's imprimatur on the man/woman marital relationship. Even other traditions, including polygamist traditions (such as Islam or, say, historical Mormonism), are predicated on male/female relationships (it's just that they polygamist traditions increased the number of available females for every male). And just as biological children flow from the commercial imperative behind some marriages, so too are biological children an integral part of religious marriages. After all, "God blessed Noah and his sons, and said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth." Genesis, 9:1. The above facts and traditions are the boundaries of my discussion. They are certainly entirely separate concepts behind marriage -- commerce on the one hand, religion on the other -- yet in the United States they are blurred. American marriages are both blessed before God, and given benefits from the State. Why is this? There is a simple answer in the Western tradition: up until recent times, God & State were intertwined. The King was a Christian monarch, the State a Christian entity. And just as God and State were one, so two was the civil side of marriage (power and money) inextricably intertwined with the religious side. America, at its founding, while ostensibly separating Church and State (mainly to protect religion from the coercive power of the State, and not the other way around), did not separate the mixed civil/religious implications of marriage. Thus, it has never been questioned in America that the State has the power to regulate marriage -- hence, its attack on Mormom polygamy in the 19th century, and the fact that it grants multiple legal benefits to the married (recognition of children, access to the ill, etc.). Indeed, in America, a marriage is not "legal" with a civil imprimatur. However, despite the historical merger between religion and commerce in American marriages, Americans have never lost sight of the two separate strands -- marriage still has a religious element, as evidenced by the fact that people routinely marry in houses of worship; and a secular element, in that a marriage does not obtain civil benefits absent a secular marriage license. In other words, while America has always labeled the intertwined elements under the single heading of "marriage," Americans have always been aware of the separate civil and religious aspects to marriage. That's why the majority of Americans favor civil unions. They recognize that it is unfair to deny purely civil benefits -- such as the right to visit a sick loved one, the right to inherit jointly earned property, and the right to work-based benefits -- to people who have made a life-long commitment to each other. Equally, though, religious Americans continue to recognize that, to the extent marriage has a purely religious element, marriage can apply only to the union of a man and a woman. It is the latter understanding that causes revulsion in even non-homophobic people when they are told that marriage cannot be limited to opposite sexes. Because Americans subliminally draw a big bright line between civil ceremonies that bestow civil benefits, and religious ceremonies that create religious covenants, I believe gays are making a big PR mistake pressing for "Gay Marriages." Civil unions are a civic idea, and gays ought to be accorded full civil rights. However, because marriage has inherent in it deeply-held religious beliefs, gays, by pushing for "gay marriage" through civil media (such as courts and legislatures) are improperly attempting to influence religion. If individual religious organizations want to recognize gay marriage, that is their prerogative. However, to use the power of the state to force the various religions in this country to recognize gay marriage may well violate the First Amendment's separation of church and state. ______________________ *My discussion is based on my internal, brain-driven knowledge base. If you want more details, you can find a nice summary of the history marriage here.