Marriage Equality: For All or None

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As the Supreme Court deliberates and prepares rulings on Proposition 8 (California’s voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage) and the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act (which defines marriage, on a federal level, as a union between man and woman), it’s only timely to consider what kind of an institution marriage has been, is, and should be.

Those advocating for same-sex couples to have access to the same rights and treatment insist that they are not asking for “gay marriage;” rather, they’re demanding marriage equality.  However, one of the more popular arguments against it is rooted in religious belief.

BuzzFeed’s Matt Stopera waded into a Nation for Marriage rally as the Supreme Court weighed the arguments about Proposition 8 last Tuesday and asked 20 young people at the rally to write down why they thought marriage was between one man and one woman. Of the 20, 11 had some version of “God said so,” and 2 more stopped just short of religion, referring to “traditional marriage.” (Check it out here.)

But, how religious is the institution of marriage? Getting into the history of it is worthy of a separate article that can stand on its own, but the long and short of it is that it has been quite secular at its roots and has strong secular elements today.

History is full of examples of marriages that didn’t pay lip service to religion, much less the Judeo-Christian tradition. This includes arranged marriages to bolster families’ wealth and power, complete with dowries (Christian Europe has been no stranger to this – ever hear of the Habsburgs, the most inbred family to sit on a throne, ever?). Today, it comes right down to checking the “Married, filing jointly” box on your Form 1040 around tax season.

As far as the legal and tax codes go in this country, as it stands on a federal level, whether or not a man and woman choose to throw a “big white wedding” at a church, as long as they get their legal document, in the form of a marriage license, their marriage is considered, well, legal, and recognized by the government.

The couples only choose whether or not they will have a priest bless their union with a religious ceremony, in which case they obtain a marriage license permitting a religious official to perform the ceremony. But otherwise, a judge can perform a civil ceremony and voila – the pair is wed.

So, if access to marriage is to be approved or denied by specific churches and congregations, does that invalidate the unions of heterosexual couples who only have a civil ceremony? Does that make them less worthy? In the eyes of the churches, I guess – in the same way that a Baptist congregation might not necessarily view a Catholic marriage as worthy. But in the eyes of the law, no, heterosexual partners who stuck with the civil ceremony, are not less worthy.

Marriage, thus, is not exclusively secular, but it’s also not exclusively ecclesiastical, either.

If certain congregations or churches do not want to perform a ceremony for a same-sex couple, perhaps that can be left up to them. Everybody would like to have their loving relationship blessed by people of their own faith and church, but there are already other religious groups that will happily perform the rites, so there are still other options to partake in the “big white wedding.” That seems to be an unimpeachable way to ensure that religious freedoms for the various groups in the United States can be preserved.

Yet, that is still not incompatible with recognition of marriage for same-sex couples in the eyes of the law. That includes things like being able to file taxes as a married couple and enjoy the various incentives and tax breaks that come from that — health benefits, visitation rights if one of the couple falls ill, and more.

But if we want the government to “keep its hands off marriage,” and use religion as the source of opposition to legal recognition of same-sex marriages, we need to realize that decoupling the institution of marriage from the State and locking it under the umbrella of the Church can have consequences for everyone.

Say goodbye to that “Married, filing jointly” option on your tax returns. Ta-ta to various tax breaks bestowed on married couples. No more health care coverage for your spouse in the interest of saving some dollars by not having redundant benefits packages. Oh, and if you didn’t get a priest to marry you when you first joined hands, your marriage is invalid, so please see your local religious official as soon as possible to rectify that (yes, that’s right, even if you’re agnostic or atheist).

That last bit is why we do have separation of Church and State in the United States – there are many various religious affiliations, but there are also agnostic people who might not fit neatly into any of them, as well as atheists who don’t believe in religion or any deity at all.

As far as Church and State separation goes, marriage has been and remains a very blended institution. One could argue that the religious portion of it ought to be left up to the various congregations at their own discretion. But, denying that secular aspect of it to a certain group of people puts them in a second-class status and institutionalizes discrimination.

Unless, of course, we flip to the other side of the “marriage equality” coin and strip all couples of the secular, non-faith-based benefits and consequences of marriage, as Sen. Rand Paul recently suggested as a solution by making the tax code “neutral.” (Never mind the repercussions of this option and where this could lead to as far as things like citizenship, divorce, children of divorced parents, etc.) Would opponents of legal recognition of same-sex marriages nationwide be okay with losing their own current or future status as legally-married couples?

It is worth noting that, thus far, advocates of marriage equality have not taken to this “nuclear option” of dismantling the institution for heterosexual couples. Nobody is crying out, saying “if gays can’t have marriage, nobody can!” Their demands have, thus far, only included recognition of equal rights and status in the eyes of the government.

In demanding rights for themselves, the LGBT community, its advocates and their allies have not pushed to infringe on the rights of anyone else. Is it really such a tall order that we merely reciprocate?