Gay Marriage is a Human Right, not a Religious Issue
Fellow blogger Tim Weaver agreed to cross-post this essay on his blog, Not So Subtle: Radically Independent Politics. I like his writing a lot, so you may too.
Tim, thank you for the kind introduction. Since you noted Lisa Miller’s Newsweek essay, I’ll take that as my starting point and say that religious arguments for and against legal recognition of same sex marriages (because this is what we are talking about, the marriage already existing in the hearts of those involved) are irrelevant for two simple reasons. The existence of God or the Gods cannot be proven, and even if these Gods existed, they would not be human beings, still less would they be citizens of this Republic.
American gay and lesbian people are not only American citizens-which as a point of law we have so far refused to accept through the prism of military service-they are also human beings. As such, in America, they are entitled to the protection of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a document strongly influenced by the United States through the person of Eleanor Roosevelt, recognizes that “the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State” and so “men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.” Men and women are “entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution” and “marriage shall be entered into only with the free and full consent of the intending spouses.”
Whether or not sexual orientation is biologically innate is at best tangential to the legal recognition of marriages between people of the same sex (although the evidence is in fact overwhelming that there is a strong genetic component to sexual orientation): this is a matter of fundamental human and civil equality. If a man may marry, he may marry regardless of his sexual orientation. If a woman may marry, she may marry regardless of her sexual orientation. And that means whom they choose, provided they and their partners are of full age, and freely and fully consent. To say that gay and lesbian people may marry but only people of the opposite sex is to say, 1., they do not have the same right to marry their freely chosen and freely choosing, willing partner that they would if only one or another of them were of another sex, and 2., since very few gay or lesbian people, given any rational choice, willingly marry someone of the other sex (let alone if they genuinely care for that person), they have no practical or ethical right to marry at all.
In this context, this is what equal rights before the law means, not simply between men and women, but also between human beings more generally. If it’s OK for a man to marry a woman who wants to marry him, it’s OK for a woman to marry a woman who wants to marry her. If it’s OK for a woman to marry a man who wants to be married to her, it’s OK for a man to marry a man who wants to be married to him.
Not everything that is good should be a right, no more than everything that is bad should be a crime. The law can be a harsh and crude instrument, more suited for punishment than guidance or encouragement.
But the right to marry, which is to say, the right to have the law recognize your deepest, most important relationship with a person whom you love, honor, cherish and intend to cling to, forsaking all others, and with whom you hope and intend to spend the rest of your life, is central to the ability of each of us to create a secure, stable and dignified life. And as American citizens and human beings, gay people are entitled to the equal protection of the laws, and including the recognition of their marriages, as an essential foundation for engaging in the individual human work of creating those secure, stable and dignified lives to which we are all entitled.
To demand that people married to others of the same sex call their marriages something other than what they are-marriages-is to debase not only a language shared between Americans of all sexual orientations, but also the reality this language represents. People who wish to formally, legally pledge their lives to other people of the same sex do not wish to be “civil unioned,” they wish to be married: to take their place in the legal institution that literally gave birth to them, an institution they are heir to as much as their heterosexual brothers and sisters.
For marriage is a legal institution, not a religious one: it is not the priest or the rabbi, the pastor or the mullah whose words marry two people, but the vows of the individuals to each other, and their signatures on the marriage certificate. The relationship is between them; the state not only recognizes the relationship that they have created between themselves, it also protects it in so far as it can (the state cannot do everything); clerical sacraments merely bear witness on behalf of their congregants-not all the people, nor the Republic-and ask the deity they worship to bless that union. (That deity may or may not.) Neither churches nor individual clergy should be required to administer sacraments they do not believe are appropriate, no more than anyone should be required to attend a wedding or give a gift, except because they want to. Many of us make these judgments about marriages between heterosexuals.
However, for a majority to reserve to itself certain rights, which can only be exercised by the individuals concerned, preventing a minority from exercising them is nothing more than tyranny. There is no more clearcut a case of the tyranny of the majority than the refusal to legally recognize marriages between people of the same sex. There is nothing at all elevated about saying, as a matter of law: having arranged our lives to suit ourselves, we will arrange your lives, too, as we please.
To refuse to allow openly gay and lesbian Americans to serve in the military that is their military too, is to say that they are not citizens: that they not only have neither the right nor the responsibility to participate in the common defense, but that they are forbidden to participate in that defense. To refuse them legal recognition of their marriages is to say to them that they are not entitled to the fundamental human rights of marrying and creating families. It is to forbid them from fulfilling the most basic emotional need in a legally protected and socially dignified way.
If the words freedom, equality, and justice-which are not the same-mean anything, together they mean that each of us has only one life, which we may live as we see fit but in no way may we impose ourselves or our chosen life upon others. The denial of legal recognition of marriages covenanted to by people of the same sex, whether that denial takes place under color of law, constitutional amendment, or judicial decree, is an act, not of freedom of conscience or the free exercise of religion, let alone of morality, but of illegitimately depriving sovereign adults of their ability to make utterly intimate and benign choices about their lives-in short, of tyranny.