Archbishop Timothy Dolan characterized it as not good for the common good, adding his assessment that…society and culture is at it’s peril. I couldn’t disagree more. The day the Republican controlled Senate passed and Democratic Governor Cuomo signed a bill legalizing same-sex marriage in New York was exceedingly good for the common good, a glimmer of hope for our society and culture. It merits the traditional prayer invoked by Jews in giving thanks for sustaining us and bringing us to this day. As the Psalmist put it, This is a day the Lord has made, let us be glad and rejoice in it. Indeed, rejoice — each and every one of us straight and gay, followers of a religion or not — and be very glad. The Archbishop would do well to read Frank Bruni’s touching June 25th column, To Know Us Is to Let Us Love, one I hope you’ll check out as well. I can’t think of a better lesson in society and culture.
President Obama, who believes it unconstitutional, has ordered the Justice Department to stop representing the Defense of Marriage Act signed into law by, yes, Bill Clinton in 1996. That misguided legislation, initiated by self appointed arbiters of family values, assumes that defining marriage narrowly, in the traditional way, will somehow protect the institution. That’s nothing short of snake oil sold to the public by rightist and religious ideologues. We all know uniting a man and woman in wedlock is no guarantee of marital success. America’s divorce rate is disturbingly high. If traditional marriage has been undermined, we can only blame the different-sex partners whom our society has long allowed the exclusive privilege of tying — and breaking — the knot.
While divorced myself, I continue to believe strongly in the institution of marriage and in the underlying idea it tokens — human commitment. Make no mistake, what happened in New York and in too few other places, is perhaps the most powerful affirmation of marriage we have seen in our lifetime. It is the most concrete statement that nothing bespeaks a commitment between two people more than marriage. No one should be robbed of that ultimate statement. Civil Unions, the better-than-nothing copout available in some places, fall short — far short. Faux, however we may dress it up, is never the real thing and we all know it.
I may totally disagree with Archbishop Dolan and deplore that he and other likeminded religious leaders across many faiths have lobbied so hard against same-sex marriage or have sought to impose their often narrow beliefs on the lives of the greater public. Nowhere is this more egregious than on the issue of abortion whose latest manifestation is defunding Planned Parenthood under the guise of fiscal responsibility. Like others, I deeply resent that they have invaded my private space.
That said, I applaud the New York legislature for indemnifying religious institutions that opt not to sanction or host same-sex marriages under their roofs. This has been portrayed as a pragmatic tactic in gaining the necessary majority, and that is undoubtedly the case. But I think it far more significant and, as such, should not be seen as merely an expedient. In fact, supporters of same-sex marriage (religious or not) should embrace any affirmation of religious freedom, perhaps especially for religious ideas with which we totally disagree, as much as the legalization of marriage equality itself. Just as the government has no business in our bedrooms, it has no right to impose its will in our church, synagogue or mosque. If clergy or a church refuses, a couple has other options and, from a legal standpoint, one could say more direct even if not preferable options. Clergy who officiate at a wedding — execute a marriage license, which makes it binding — do so as agents of the state, surrogate civil servants if you will. Real civil servants, judges and the like, officiate at weddings all the time.
What happened in New York is just another step on a long journey, perhaps one that will take years. The President himself has not come out unambiguously in support of same-sex marriage. It’s high time that he do so, but even that won’t turn the tide in 29 states that have adopted Constitutional Amendments and thus far, a change in recent polls notwithstanding, voters have turned down marriage equality whenever it has appeared on a ballot. Also, the Supreme Court will be asked to rule on this subject and, given their current ideological makeup, one can’t be sure how they will interpret the Constitution. Building even wider public support and enacting legislation where possible, biding for time, is probably not such a bad thing. Also, with a growing number of states that have adopted marriage equality, same-ex couples now have options not available in the past. Perhaps one day I'll have the privlege of officiating at the wedding of two loving partners finally afforded the marriage right and opportuntiy that I had, a brith right that should have been equally their's, and now will be in New York.
For the moment, let’s not think of the obsticals ahead but of the progress that has been made. On June 23, 1963, John F. Kennedy traveled to Berlin where a wall had been erected separating East from West. In an affirmation of solidarity, Kennedy famously declared, Ich bin ein Berliner. It’s been five years since I moved to North Carolina from New York where I lived for most of my adult years. I may be voting and paying taxes in Chapel Hill, but last Friday I was a New Yorker, and damn proud of it.