This week the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) is hearing oral arguments concerning two cases brought on the matter of whether states’ denial of rights to marry (or rights to be recognized as married if the act was conducted in another state) constitutes an unconstitutional denial of equal protection of the laws. The Court is expected to make a ruling this summer.
Americans on each side of the argument feel strongly about this topic; I can’t remember anyone who is neutral. Some see the Constitution’s guarantee of equal treatment along with basic ethics and compassion to lead to the indisputably right choice, one decades (centuries?) overdue. Others see the shattering disruption of social fabric, recklessly impetuous reversal of long tradition, and even a sacrilege against the divine plan. It is no secret I long ago chose the former position, considering the latter to be, well, not very Christian.
This post is not to argue the matter, at least not directly, but to note that much of the fury surrounds a single word: marriage. Traditionalists resisted granting gays civil union status, but they relented. After all, making a point of treating gays with a bit more civility—while not to their liking—did not threaten their religion so much as their social comfort. But taking over the definition of marriage, a matter religions have long assumed is theirs by God-given right, was in their eyes not just increasing gay rights, but shouldering in on religious territory–just one more instance of the War on Religion, I suppose.
That is, it is easier to give ground on something called “civil unions,” even if you abhor any recognition that some human beings are good people who sexually desire others of their gender. But changing the very nature of marriage (as allowing gays in would appear to them) is unscriptural—no, anti-scriptural. Contrary to America’s destiny as righteous City on the Hill, it instead brings us a dangerous step closer to being the United States of Sodom and Gomorrah. Marriage is a word controlled by God, not by vote, not by courts, and certainly not by Sodomites.
My inclination is to rail against the idiocies of such thinking, of which I have done my share. But not now; not here. As I opined in “Being civil about gay marriage” (posted June 30, 2013), at least some part of the current dilemma is founded in mixing religion and government to begin with. To tie religions’ definitions (there are many) of marriage and tie the state’s legislative definition of marriage was a natural thing to do—I doubt before twenty years ago I’d have noticed the error—but it did set us up for some of the current strife.
We might have, more wisely, engaged the state in civil unions for all and let the churches own the word marriage, defining it any way they wish. Really now, how does it make sense that my marriage, though meaning whatever my wife and I choose for it to mean, has anything to do with the state except for legal purposes? In other words, civil unions, an unromantic but perfectly freeing concept, would be sufficient and would keep church and state separate. Under those conditions, if we chose to have a religiously-defined marriage, we could certainly avail ourselves of it, but would have to meet a religion’s guidelines. That’s fair.
What could be more Biblical? Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s. Render unto God (or whatever that concept means to different faiths) what is God’s. Jesus may have said little or nothing about homosexuality, but according to Christians, definitely did say something about separating civil laws and religious ones.
From my secular humanist perspective, if religionists are so hell-bent to dictate to others the definition of the word marriage, then let them have it! Magic words are important to the faithful, but need not be to anyone else.