- - Sunday, October 12, 2014

The dispute about gay marriage appears to have come down the definition of the word “marriage.” Even the dominant voices of the opposition appear to have sympathy for the plight of the homosexual population. Traditionally, they had none of the tax advantages of married heterosexuals, no authority to name their partner on their health insurance, and most of all, if their sexual preference had been known, minimal chances for advancement, or even being hired, in most fields outside fashion and entertainment. Most religious people are compassionate enough to agree that a segment of the population should not suffer such discrimination.

So, what is the problem?

The traditional understanding of homosexuality was that this is a “condition” which is undertaken by choice. Homosexual behavior was therefore considered a sin, and there were also civil laws against it. The traditional understanding was therefore that this “condition” could be “cured” by repentance and force of will.

The more recent understanding of homosexuality holds that it is a natural characteristic over which the individual, having been born a homosexual, has no control. The issue of the origin of homosexuality is important, however, only in answer to the question of personal responsibility. Should it be against the law to be gay? Should gay people be considered criminals? Should they be treated as second class citizens? There are few Americans today who would answer these questions in the affirmative.

Once the focus shifts from personal responsibility to personal rights as an American citizen, the question of origins becomes irrelevant. The self-identified lesbian/gay/bisexual-transsexual (LGB/T) population is estimated at 2.2 percent-4 percent in the U.S. (Gates, Williams Institute, Sept. 24, 2014). Gallup reports a slightly higher estimate (5.6 percent). The actual number of this group is unknown because many members do not reveal their preferences due to prevailing prejudice. “The fact is that an estimated 5.2 million to 9.5 million individuals aged 18 and older are LGBT here in the United States” (Gates, ibid). However they came to be what they are, many are now living under constraints that are harsh and discriminatory. The current legislative push for gay rights comes directly from this obvious injustice.

So, what is the remedy?

Since the rights curtailed by current laws are personal, so must the remedy be personal. Thus the first laws addressing this issue envisioned recognition by the State of the de facto union between two consenting adults, called “civil union”. Many Americans found they could accept this approach as a way to remedy the violation of gay rights without affecting the greater society.

However, this solution was not enough for the LGB/T people. They insisted that their civil union be called “marriage”. It was this demand that unleashed a tidal wave of objections. Many religious leaders among others insist that the term “marriage” is sacred, reserved by the Bible for the union of one man and one woman. To them, using the term for the civil union between members of the same sex is sacrilegious. Since civil weddings are of relatively recent origin (17th century), however, the Bible does no deal directly with this issue. The closest Jesus got to it is when he said, ” “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to God the things that are God’s.” (Mark 12:17)

What are the respective purposes of marriage for church and state? The state records a marriage for a number of pedestrian reasons: to keep track of name changes (less used now than in the past), to determine tax brackets, to record a marital relationship in the event of divorce or death, to validate voters and domiciles in each jurisdiction, to verify parenthood when babies are born, to monitor residential zoning, and so on.

Churches see marriage quite differently. First of all, the marital relationship is viewed as a sacred union between one man and one woman whose future happiness and holiness depend to a large extent on each other. This co-dependence is frequently referred to in both in Old and the New Testaments of the Bible. It is a fundamental belief of all religions that this union is ordained by nature and thereby the Creator as manifested in the sexual differences and the requirements to procreate.

When Americans ascribe a religious definition to the civil marriage, it seems that they are not entirely correct. In the case of Catholics, civil “marriages” are not even considered a sacrament, and Church law does not recognize or enforce the obligations of a civil union. Protestants, who invented civil marriages after the Reformation, historically have had a somewhat ambivalent attitude toward civil marriages. Early Lutherans and Calvinists considered marriage to be properly the concern of the State alone. The Puritans and their successors in America upheld that idea but added a more religious role to secular authorities.

Today, the urge to reconsider traditional attitudes toward the whole subject of LGB/T is highlighted by the question of who owns the term “marriage”. Clearly, the roles of Church and State in relation to marriage are not in dispute. Nor is the right of LGB/T folks to live normal lives in our society. Nor are churches being required or even asked to change anything they are doing with respect to marriage today, although most are evaluating their own traditions which generally exclude gays from certain religious practices and offices.

If the only disagreement is about the use of the word with reference to civil unions sanctioned by the state, it seems tempest really is in the teapot. If the disagreement about the word is really a code for prejudice against the LGB/T community as alleged by some of their leaders, then we have a whole different argument. And that dispute is substantive if unfortunate. Pope Francis I gave an answer to that attitude when he asked, Who am I to judge?”

There is also another dimension to this dispute, namely the potential interpretation of the law by the courts, forcing churches and other organizations to change their operating procedures, citing the 14th Amendment against discrimination. It is possible that churches may be sued for excluding gays from certain occupations such as clergy, youth leaders, or catechists, or for doctrinal positions such as calling homosexuality a sin, or excluding consideration of gays from teachings about marriage or sex education. Even more likely is the prospect of the courts forcing public education to teach about homosexuality in a neutral or approving context. This is the “camel’s nose under the tent” theory, which has proven accurate in other disputes, such as contraception and cigarette smoking,.

It is one thing for government to passively recognize the civil rights of gays, but quite another to begin an aggressive campaign to change social practices and attitudes. However, in a democracy these in-your-face tactics are tolerated. The issue at this point becomes the view of his/her prerogatives which is held by individual judges. The only thing that can be said about this topic is that the groundwork for such aggressive advocacy has already been laid. Whether or not churches and youth groups agree to the use of the term “marriage” for civil unions, we are in for a long succession of legal battles over gay rights.

Opinion polls suggest that Americans as a whole have largely accepted the existence of gays. The prestigious Pew Center reports that “… the percentage of adults in the United States who say that society should accept homosexuality has grown from 51 percent in 2006 to 62 percent in 2014.”(Pew Research Center, September 28, 2014) Gallop reports that support for gay marriage is now the highest on record at 55 percent (May 22, 2014). In view of this rapidly increasing public support of gay marriage, it seems somewhat quixotic to be arguing about the definition of the word “marriage” when much more substantive issues are already beginning to surface.

Gay marriage is here. The public does not seem to see the value of making a major issue about the use of the word “marriage” when such usage has no practical effect on the larger challenges we are beginning to face. Common sense says they are right.

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