Thursday, March 11, 2004

I'd like to start with three words on the subject of same-sex marriage:

I'm for it.

I could go on about this subject for hours, but I'd be preaching to the converted. At any rate, I have no expertise in constitutional law (or any other kind of law), theology, or sociology. I just happen to believe that, as a civil-liberties issue, legalizing same-sex marriage is an idea whose time is long overdue.

I can't address religious objections to same-sex marriage with either theological or historical expertise. Some religious traditions clearly restrict marriage to a bond between one man and one woman. Some religious traditions also place clear restrictions on marriage between members of that tradition and outsiders, or involving previously divorced or widowed persons. The rulings of governments regarding the secular functions of marriage cannot change anything that adherents to a religious faith believe to have been divinely revealed. In the U.S., the government can't force the Catholic Church to grant automatic annulments to divorced persons, nor compel the LDS to perform mixed marriages in a Mormon temple. Conversely, religious bodies cannot prevent other institutions from performing either religious or secular marriage ceremonies between partners who are legally free to marry. In short, and in the extreme: If a lapsed Mormon and a divorced Catholic choose to get married to each other at City Hall, their home churches are completely free to boot them out -- and they're legally married anyway.

The legalization of same-sex marriage won't change this situation by one metric whit. It also won't change a thing about the status of all of the conventional heterosexual marriages that exist now and always have. (The argument that same-sex marriage would somehow change the status of male-female married couples has always struck me as bizarre. Then again, I've never understood the idea that the brutal torture and execution of a political and religious dissident 2000 years ago was supposed to render true believers transcendentally immune to the natural mortality of complex eukaryotes, as opposed to merely pointing out that our supposedly "advanced" species is still benighted enough to torture and execute unconventional thinkers in almost every part of the world one can imagine. I guess I'm just funny that way.)

What same-sex marriage *will* change is the social and economic stability of long-term partnerships, particularly those that involve child-rearing and/or the joint ownership of property. It will also grant dignity to loving adult relationships of long standing. (Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon have been together for 51 years? How many couples of any orientation can make that kind of claim?)

I'll apologize ahead of time for one borderline straw man here. I'm sure that most of the thoughtful religious and cultural conservatives who are opposed to same-sex marriage are not particularly fond of shock TV either. But, there have to be some folks who have a kneejerk opposition to same-sex marriage, but have gleefully watched reality-TV shows that play very strange games with the institution of man-woman marriage. Is that all just fine as long as we don't entertain ourselves with "My Big Fat Obnoxious Gay Fiance" or "Who Wants To Marry A Lesbian Millionaire?" (As one wag pointed out a couple of years back: No one respects the sanctity of a million dollars any more.) Our popular culture currently trivializes marriage in many ways, not in the least by making it a televised spectator sport devoid of any principled commitment by the parties involved. But, how does it trivialize marriage to open the institution to all committed couples who would enter into it in good conscience?

At any rate, I'll be happy when a couple I know, who have been together through good times and bad for 15 years, who are jointly raising a much-loved child, who own and care for a beautiful home, and who share every part of their lives one can imagine, can choose to add a fully legal marriage license to the religious commitment ceremony that has already joined them in every ethical and spiritual sense one can imagine. I think it will happen. Assuming that the U.S. doesn't stupidly manage to amend its constitution to reduce rather than guarantee civil liberties, the ball is rolling. (Note to those who think that using federal and state constitutions to place new strictures on the private lives of consenting adults is a good idea: Look at how well Prohibition worked.) There will eventually be fully legal gay and lesbian marriage ceremonies. There will also be gay and lesbian divorces; it comes with the territory. Equal rights and equal responsibilities. As with any cultural innovation, we're all in for some novelties here. They will eventually come about, and life will go on.