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Lesbian Notions

Marriage Uncoupled

Paula Martinac | October 27, 2003

Recently, President Bush signed a proclamation declaring that "marriage is a sacred institution" - a statement that implies there's only one meaning of marriage, as a religious rite. In fact, there are two distinct forms of marriage: the sacred ceremony overseen by various religious denominations, and the secular contract controlled by the states. The fact that politicians and religious leaders inappropriately meld the two is one of the biggest obstacles the gay community faces in its push for civil marriage rights.

Although we're supposed to enjoy separation of church and state in this country, somewhere in our past the states decided to permit a shortcut for couples desiring a religious blessing for their legal union. As a result, clergy members have long been permitted to act as officiants of the state and perform legal marriages, although, technically, the words "By the power vested in me by the state of ..." should never be in any cleric's mouth.

There's no question that the bonding of religious and civil marriage is more convenient for straight couples desiring a church ceremony; in many other countries, they would first have to be wed legally by a public official before their union could be blessed in a second ceremony by an official of a religious denomination. Despite its efficiency, the "coupling" of religious and civil marriage was a mistake that nibbles at the boundaries of church and state.

And it's a mistake for which same-sex couples pay the price. Because of it, many straight Americans are confused about what same-sex marriage rights actually mean. The anti-gay-marriage activists have literally put the fear of God into the minds of many religious folks, who fret that same-sex marriage rights would suddenly require priests, ministers, rabbis, and other religious officials to perform marriages that their beliefs oppose.

Consider, for example, that the movement behind the antigay Federal Marriage Amendment has been seeking the support of African-American communities by engaging the help of prominent black ministers. For many blacks, religion is central - churches provide not only emotional sustenance in African-American cultures, but needed social services as well. It's no surprise that, although in polls African Americans show significant support for gay civil rights, they overwhelmingly oppose gay marriage.

But, in fact, the granting of civil marriage rights to same-sex couples wouldn't affect religious marriage at all. The same government that's supposed to ensure the separation of church and state is also bound to ensure religious liberty. Religious denominations have long been free to discriminate based on their beliefs, which means they're also free to set their own rules about marriage. So, for example, while a justice of the peace couldn't refuse to marry a couple because one of the two is divorced, a Roman Catholic priest could and would. And he most certainly could refuse to marry a gay couple. By the same token, religious denominations would also be free to perform gay unions, if they chose to - as a small number now do.

Of course, much of the misinformation people have about same-sex marriage rights stems from the many politically powerful clergy who believe it's their moral duty - and God-given right - to actively work for the passage of discriminatory antigay laws or the rescinding of pro-gay ones. And I don't just mean the Christian Right. The pope saw fit this past summer to completely disregard the separation of church and state and direct American Catholic politicians to oppose same-sex marriage rights. To his credit, Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. John Kerry, a Catholic who does not at this time support same-sex marriage, publicly rebuked the pope for this flagrant crossing of church-and-state boundaries. As a movement, we must urge other politicians to stand up to pressure from religious leaders who inappropriately try to instruct them how to vote.

Also, gay people and their allies who regularly attend religious services could lobby gay-supportive clergy members to follow the example of the few bold Unitarian Universalist clerics attempting to uncouple religious and civil marriage. These ministers - both straight and gay - have announced that they will perform religious ceremonies, but not sign legal marriage licenses, until gay couples are afforded equal marriage rights. Couples who choose to be wed by these clergy members will have to visit a justice of the peace to have their legal license signed.

Finally, gay people can discuss with our straight peers what the extension of civil marriage rights to same-sex couples actually means. To develop your own talking points, visit the websites of the Alliance for Same-Sex Marriage and the Interfaith Working Group. We can actively work to get across the message that achieving same-sex marriage rights won't diminish freedom of religion, but instead afford lesbian and gay partners the same basic civil rights that other Americans enjoy.

Paula Martinac is a Lambda Literary Award-winning author of seven books and editor in chief of Q Syndicate.

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