Wednesday, March 27, 2013

The Two Meanings of Marriage

Lately, my facebook feed has been inundated with red math. First, equal signs, then unequal signs, plus signs, even a division sign (I’m still not sure which side that came from), all interspersed with statuses about equality, the “right side of history,” “traditional marriage,” and the Bible. I had been distracted by Holy Week, so I didn’t know about the cases in front of the Supreme Court. Fortunately, hundreds of my facebook friends have decided that they are constitutional scholars, so I’m all caught up now.

Here’s the thing. Yes, the Catholic Church opposes marrying homosexuals. Its theology on the sacrament of marriage leads to that conclusion. But what my Church practices should have absolutely nothing to do with U.S. law. America is supposed to be all about freedom, liberty, and opportunity. LGBTs should have the exact same rights under the law as straight people. If a couple wants a non-religious wedding, or if a church (such as Unitarians) want to marry homosexuals, they should be able to, just as my Church should be able to refuse.

My problem is the intertwining of church and state. Marriage is a sacrament, a covenant, a religious institution. The state should have no say in who can or can’t get married. It may need to keep a record of who is married for various purposes, but the church (or any religion) should be the one who determines marriages. Getting the state involved in a religious matter is what has gotten us into this big mess to begin with. Taxes and medical rights and all the other benefits of marriage shouldn’t be excluded to marriage. But state-sanctioned marriage includes so much now, it would be near-impossible to free marriage of the state’s hold. And it would be cruel to deny anyone access to all the special rights the state grants married people.

Traditional marriage isn’t what people think it is. Some conservatives use “traditional marriage” and “biblical marriage” interchangeably. From the Old Testament, that means marriage is void of love; it’s more of a contract between families in which a woman is exchanged. Polygamy is ok, and concubines or sleeping with the wife’s servants is also permissible. Up through the 16th-century, marriage was strictly between two people. If a man and woman claimed that they exchanged marriage vows (even if there were no other witnesses), the Church accepted it as valid and recorded it as such. Marriage licenses only existed for special cases (such as nobility marrying someone a little too closely related). If we are going to return to “traditional” marriage, I want this to be it, where the couple makes the vows, the Church declares it valid, and the state says nothing.

Marriage licenses in America picked up steam in the early twentieth century as a way to prohibit whites from marrying minorities. So basically, the state took over for bigoted reasons. That’s not a tradition I want to continue. I take marriage seriously. That said, if I exchange vows in a Church ceremony and never get a state license, I won’t consider myself any less married. The state means nothing to a covenant between two people. If a man and a man or a woman and a woman or a man and two women want to make a covenant to one another, they should, as long as they take their vows seriously.

Marriage should be a religious rights issue. I want to free it of the limits of the state and give it back to the religions. But since that isn’t happening, marriage is also a civil rights issue. A country that values liberty and pursuit of happiness cannot impose theocracy and bigotry onto its citizens. Everyone deserves the same rights under the law. That’s why justice is blind. A country cannot tell its people who they can or can’t love.

In short, this is an ugly battle because it affects so many people's lives in a deeply personal way. And as it plays out on my newsfeed, please follow Wheaton's Law: don't be dick.

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