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Secularists Should Support Civil Marriage Equality for Gays

The fervor of conservatives against gay civil marriage is largely fueled by religious prejudice, and the language of same-sex marriage critics indicates as much. In a proclamation for “marriage protection,” George W. Bush called marriage a “sacred institution.” Other critics use similar language, often appealing to the “sanctity” of marriage, or claiming that “traditional marriage” is under attack. “Traditional” is simply a code word for a strictly Judeo-Christian understanding of marriage as an institution established by God between man and women. When politicians and voters use such language, it should be a red flag for those of us who understand the importance of avoiding entanglement between church and state, and of protecting the liberties of those who do not subscribe to the religious standards of the majority.

Some secularists might argue that church and state are already entangled by our government’s regulation of marriage, which they say is an exclusively religious institution. However, this position fails to acknowledge the legitimate state interest in protecting the property and inheritance rights of families, protecting the rights of parents and the welfare of children with regard to custody matters, and protecting equal rights to medical visitation and determination of all couples who have established a family union. These interests are served by the protection of marriage as a civil institution, quite apart from whatever religious covenant that couples might choose to incorporate into their own marriage relationship.

It’s important to distinguish between marriage as a civil institution, and marriage as a religious institution. While the majority of marriages in the United States will continue to be both of these things, the only aspect of marriage with which the government should be concerned is the civil aspect, leaving the religious aspect to the conscience of individuals. Nonreligious civil marriages, such as my own marriage, demonstrate the valuable distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage in the eyes of the law. Advocates for civil marriage equality for gays should continue to drive home this distinction, emphasizing that the government should never force religions to sanctify unions to which they have doctrinal objections, just as religion should never force government to limit liberties based on purely faith-based considerations.

In his Agora essay entitled “Gay Activists Should Turn the Gun on the Enemy,” J. Blunt blames gays for the recent rash of gay marriage bans. He claims that if they had played the semantic game of demanding only “Civil Unions,” rather than “Marriage,” then perhaps they could have slipped under the radar and won the rights they are fighting for. But this doesn’t give enough credit to anti-equality politicians and voters, who aren’t just against calling gay unions “marriage,” but are against government recognition of any gay relationship that is substantially similar to marriage. Many of the state same-sex marriage bans recently passed contain language barring such unions. In Wisconsin, a proposed amendment barring same-sex marriage in that state says:

Only a marriage between one man and one woman shall be valid or recognized as a marriage in this state. A legal status identical or substantially similar to that of marriage for unmarried individuals shall not be valid or recognized in this state.

Clearly, there is a widely held sentiment against any type of gay relationship similar to marriage, and little is gained by making semantic concessions.

J. Blunt continues by proposing that we try to get the government to start calling the civil institution of marriage simply “Civil Unions,” and leaving the word “Marriage” to be defined by religion. This is much less pragmatic than the direct call for civil marriage equality for gays. If conservatives are worried now about marriage being under attack by an extension of its civil scope, they’ll be much more defensive if calls are made for the government to start verbally downgrading currently existing straight marriages to mere “Civil Unions.” We stand a much better chance of winning equality if we start pointing out the already existing–though widely misunderstood–distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage.

Opponents of civil marriage equality aren’t going to fall for the semantic route, and it’s up to those of us who stand for civil liberties and equality to continue fighting against the bans on all fronts. With this nation’s current political climate and leadership, it’s inevitable that there will be an overall regression in the battle before things start getting better. But that’s no excuse to abandon the fight or mitigate the approach.

Despite the recently passed state bans on gay marriage, there is hope for success. A proposed federal ban on gay marriage was a decisive failure in the U.S. Congress. While many of the congressional opponents of the ban said that they believed the issue should be settled at the state level, at least a few states are likely to uphold gay marriage, or civil unions substantially similar to marriage. Legalized gay marriage in those states–as well as legalization of gay marriage in Canada–will in time lead to greater cultural acceptance of such unions. As people come into increasing contact with gay married couples and their families at a personal level, awareness of the benign nature and benefits of such relationships will assuage the fears of societal crumbling that traditionalists appeal to. And as gay married couples from the few states that legalize their unions begin to move into other states, challenges to the various state bans will increase. Courts will have a difficult time upholding state bans that result in violations of Article IV of the U.S. Constitution, which guarantees that “[f]ull faith and credit shall be given in each state to the public acts, records, and judicial proceedings of every other state.”

Supporters of civil marriage equality for gays should continue engaging in dialogue with their friends and family, since this is a battle for minds as much as for legal rights. They should continue challenging the courts to protect liberties. They should continue voting for legislators who support equality in word or deed, and they should continue voting for members of the executive branch who will appoint judges that understand the importance of defending marriage as a civil institution, not just a religious one.

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