Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Proposition 8, Religion, Marriage, and the State

Proposition 8 was overturned last week, and though I am sure it will go to the Supreme Court (NB: No matter the decision from the SCOTUS...one of the bigger cases in US history will involve the name Schwartzenegger. That is madness.), seeing someone defend a national dedication to not persecuting people is reassuring. I have spent a lot of time worrying about the open vitriol that started in the Bush Administration and then ramped up to a whole new scary place when Obama was elected. Bigots seem to have much louder megaphones these days, and I'm not sure why we tolerate it. Proposition 8 seemed particularly mean-spirited to me. I do have my personal issues with gay marriage, which I'll discuss in a moment, but even beyond the arguments back and forth over the issue itself, the point of Proposition 8 seemed different - rather than a reasoned "this is not okay because it does not make sense in the context of our nation" discussion, it was a surly, brutish "no, you can't have this, you fucking GAYS. Go stand in the goddamn corner." I don't think that's what America is about and that anyone should be so proud of themselves for denying others the pursuit of happiness makes me feel ill. Judge Walker overturned the ban on gay marriage for all the right reasons within the context of a court of law, but in the process, he took the correct moral path. They're not the same, but in this case they happen to align.

Now, we should talk about gay marriage, because this debate isn't just about the pursuit of happiness. In my mind, the debate over gay marriage is the best argument for the separation of church and state we have ever seen in America. Marriage is at its core a religious rite, but over time, we have tied it to an array of legal privileges and connections. Being married now means you can inherit your loved one's possessions when they die, gain custody of their children, visit them in the hospital. This forces two problems - the state should not be able to direct the actions of the churches, and the churches should not be able to deny those legal privileges from citizens.

The best chance of resolving both problems, as far as I can see, is to create a new path to a marriage. Rather than getting a marriage license, couples of any kind could get a civil union, which would tie the legalities of their lives together. Keep the waiting period, and make it slightly more involved. I think a Justice of the Peace should probably preside over the union, not for that air of religiousness but in order to ask the questions on the table and to make sure the couple verbalizes what they’re about to do in a serious way. Words have power and declaring your connection is important – there’s a reason the simple pairing of “I” and “do” has so much significance. Then, if the couple chooses to pursue a marriage, they can do so, needing only the agreement of the church that will marry them. I think this is the most fair way to resolve the question we face.

Of course, this is all predicated on the idea that you want churches to be able to discriminate between kinds of couples. Allowing churches to do so does set sections of the Constitution at odds with other sections, to say nothing of the legal environment that has grown from that founding document. We find ourselves in the interesting position of having to choose which child we love best – Freedom of Religion or Equality. Equality has always been trying for us, and the intense battles fought for it, juxtaposed with the decline of serious religion, make it seem more important. It’s tempting to dismiss religion as old-fashioned, but to do so would be a serious mistake.

We’re wallowing in an era of mediocrity, shooting for “good enough” and limiting our dreams to cheap goals and small ideas. Almost everything comes down to the bottom line, to pure capitalism. The worst part of this is that capitalism has the potential to unlock the greatest achievements of humans – it allows those willing and able to push hard in the direction of their dreams to achieve wholly new accomplishments, and removes others’ power to repress their imagination. But there is a cost to capitalism, and we are realizing it now. Capitalism can also become weighed down with amusing the lowest common denominator, letting people make their fortunes on beautifully marketed waste at others’ expense. There’s nothing more than making money and spending it for so many people, and as religion’s influence withers, we lose our defense against this darker edge of capitalism, against our nighttime politics, and against the lazier tendencies of our souls. Religion – in any form – maintains a discussion about the things that go beyond today, this year, this life, this world. Considering that there may be forces beyond our human existence is an encouragement to be more than just a hunk of meat passing through time, and when religion is deemed important by politics (as it has been throughout history), we recognize that we must have room for influence, direction and responsibility to something beyond our own small world – even beyond the nation. Religion should not lead politics, but politics without room for religion is destined to decay.

Marriage, too, should not be discarded as a passé tradition. Marriage is a declaration to the earthly and spiritual worlds that the couple entering into it place their love above all things. Its religious nature allows people to declare that their union is as important as the spiritual world, and that it transcends their political and physical state. That’s not for nothing – it’s a big statement to make. If you are willing to make that statement about another human being, the love that inspires you to do so should trump any other rules you may find in your way. Marriage is about more than legalities.

Should churches be able to discriminate against gay couples? No, I don’t think so…I don’t think any human being or group should be able to keep anyone from pursuing happiness. However, I do think that the value of religions and of religious rites is such that it should be protected. A civil union should tend to the legal matters of tying two lives together. I think that the path I suggest may bolster membership in churches that do welcome gay partnerships, as people seek marriages after the union. John Locke speaks eloquently in his Letter Concerning Toleration of the effectiveness of religions; he explains that one cannot be saved by a faith they do not believe in, and as such, the state cannot possibly enforce a religion because religion should address the spiritual needs of its adherents. If your church does not have room for the great love of your life, how can it possibly care for your spiritual life as a whole?


  1. I'm going to go one further on you for the separation of church and state. There is no reason at all to have any legal ceremony for the union of any couple. If it is really all about spirituality then leave it there.

    The courts already have laws concerning children. Whoever's on the birth certificate or is the legal guardian via adoption, fostering, etc. is automatically the person who gets the kids upon the death of a parent regardless of who you are married to. If you are married and your child's other parent is not your spouse then you would need to specify who gets them no matter what. If you do not, the other biological parent gets the kid, not the spouse. As it currently stands in most states, if you want your spouse to get a child from another person you need to have that child legally adopted and any and all visitation rights specified or other parental rights severed. This needs to be cleaned up in a few places about the ability to protest court orders regarding the severing but that has nothing to do with legal marriage as it stands now.

    There is no valid reason that there should be a default setting for who inherits property. If you have anything and you are over the age of 18 you should have a will of some sort, even if it's just a note on a piece of lined paper. Especially with the state of marriage and remarriage today, having any default inheritance law makes no sense. This already leads to lengthy court battles. Once you hit the age of majority in your state, get a will. This service should also be provided cheaply by the government if not free and have a mandatory update of every year or so, much like a tax return is filed yearly. They're not hard to make and they are incredibly important. Marriage has nothing to do with property inheritance as it functions in this country because it is so easy to dispute a spouse's claim if there's no will present. It is a giant mess with 2nd and 3rd marriages.

    There should be no tax benefit for being married. As an adult, even as a homemaker, you are capable of earning your own money, children are not except for the last 2-3 years of their minor status. Dependent by choice rather than necessity is a pretty poor reason to give someone a tax break.

  2. Things like lease agreements, joint checking accounts and credit cards, child custody laws and laws governing business ownership have already set the precedent for legal ties to be completely independent from marriage. Continuing this with a complete severing only makes sense since no matter what you're going to have to write something up, usually in the form of a prenup. The waiting period between a marriage and the license is ridiculously low and having a civil union contract before that wouldn't make any sort of difference in rash decisions except maybe in Vegas.

    "If you are willing to make that statement about another human being, the love that inspires you to do so should trump any other rules you may find in your way."

    This line really needs to specify consenting adults. That's the exact argument made by pedophiles.

    Also I hate capitalism. The entire driving force is greed. I realize what your major was and that you're far more well-read on this subject than I am but even the literal translation of "capitalism" is following of wealth or assets. I find it weird that so many Christians support the system as it is when it's the exact opposite of what Jesus said about wealth. Capitalism is not needed to help aspirations flourish and indeed in this country it does the opposite by turning education into a business rather than a social support and growth system. It's killed American industry. If you are a good capitalist you get as much money as possible generally at the expense of whoever you deem disposable. A monopoly is the goal not just a bad side effect. I'm not a proponent of a totalitarian regime but up until the last 300 years we had amazing growth despite them or even because of demands by them.

    Equality and freedom of religion aren't, for the most part, at odds with each other. If you respect that everyone has certain equal rights and maintain them then it does not get in the way of most religions save for the severely fundamentalist ones. Even the right for a man to marry four wives in Islam wouldn't be trampled on if it was a purely spiritual thing. If he gets no tax benefit for the wives and they are shared for the children then it's pretty fair. There are many large (usually poor) families with as many children per one couple as per one man and four wives. If the bare minimum for religious freedom is that all criminal laws are followed then all the religions become equal.

    If you are to separate church from state then yes, all churches should be able to discriminate against whomever they feel right to do so. As long as they don't actively harm people they need to keep that right. Catholics do not have to let protestants worship there and vice versa. They do not have to let someone into their club that they don't want to because church is essentially that. It's a club. It's a group of people with similar views who gather together to do what they do. The right to disallow certain people to freely join (as opposed to be employed by) is the right of any organization, as long as it's not governmental.

    Or in short, we should all GTFO of other people's private business if they're not hurting anyone.