Saturday, February 14, 2004

What's in a Marriage?

When officiating at a wedding ceremony, I do so as an agent of the State.  New York State, for example, has chosen to deputize me into civil service by virtue of my ordination from an accredited Seminary, but they don't view marriage as a religious event.  Orthodox Jews may insist on a Get to recognize a divorce as religiously valid, Catholics may insist on calling it an annulment, but when it comes to child custody or the division of assets, it is state law that prevails.  So whether a rabbi, priest, minister, imam or judge presides and signs the documents, the State sees the marriage as a matter of contractual secular law.  It may inquire about religious affiliation (often an optional question) but only for statistical purposes.  Legally, it could care less whether the individuals have the same or different religious, racial or ethnic backgrounds.

So the current furor about same-sex marriages from the State's point of view is a bit disingenuous to say the least.  It's a topic most politicians, especially those currently running for office, wish would go away.  They are afraid to touch what has become yet another example of the Religious Right seeking to tear down the walls of Separation.  This is not to say that clergy of individual faiths don't have every right to refuse to officiate at such marriages or to preach against them if they find such unions inconsistent with their religious belief.  I may not agree with them, but Separation and freedom of religion embodies that privilege.  By the same token, many clergy also refuse to officiate at mixed marriages which, while recognized by the State, may not comply with their religious laws or convictions.

It always strikes me as odd that those who speak so piously of "family values" seem to be against the building of any family that does not conform to their definition of the word.  That's really sad at a time when the building of families has never been more important and where so many people have problems making commitments of any kind.  The fact is that many states now allow adoptions of children whom they know will be brought up by gay or lesbian couples, even though they pretend that not to be the case.  Perhaps it isn't yet de jure, but nobody can honestly deny its reality.  In that regard alone, rules against same-sex marriage potentially undermine the de facto family which is an essential element in this entire issue.

It seems to me that to stand for religious and civil rights, and to deny the right of two people who love each other to solemnize that union – civilly or religiously – is to be inconsistent.  But it goes much further than that.  For untold years religion and society were in denial of  homosexuality.  We pretended that Joe and Frank, Sally and Helen were very good friends but, despite what we knew was the truth of their relationship; we never afforded them the respect or the "permission" to live openly and honestly.  How many lives did this charade cost in the epidemic of AIDS?  How many lives would have been spared had we created a nurturing or accepting society that naturally promoted monogamy regardless of orientation.  Keeping relationships going takes a lot of work by the individuals involved but also the support of the world in which they live.

We're very good at killing.  We're specialists in conflict.  We're habitual degraders of our planet.  Perhaps, we ought to rethink our strategy.  Talk about being inclusive is cheap, action takes some humanity.  The willingness of same-sex couples to leave their closets behind and demand the rights given other partners, including marriage, may be a great gift to all of us, a unique opportunity.  Rather than rejecting their generosity of spirit, perhaps we should see it as an urgently needed lifeboat for ourselves and our decency.  I think we have it in us, will be better for it.

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