OP-Ed & Features, Gender & Sexuality - Wednesday, May 6, 2009 18:34
The same sex marriage debate: separating religious rites from civil rightsBy Delaney Brown, Staff writer
Gay rights activists in the United States have been vocal in support of same sex
marriage, arguing that marriage is a civil contract (Photo by Ben Gonzales)
While the gay rights movement has been ongoing since the 1950′s, the topic of same sex marriage has only recently emerged in the last fifteen years, and there is not a single issue that is tougher for people to take a stance on.
Gradually, we are witnessing a turning point in our society where equality – through a system of increasing tolerance and acceptance – is being championed for all people. However, the debate over same sex marriage has grown into a full-blown war filled with religious rhetoric. Is same sex marriage a religious issue? Is same sex marriage a legal issue? As marriage is both a religious and civil institution, this topic continues to be highly contentious, both within the legal and religious realm, and it is an issue that is not directly aligned with any political party. As we live in a more and more pluralistic society, the issue of same sex marriage carries a lot of varying viewpoints. Who is right?
Essentially, what we need is a holistic approach to the issue that includes a proper discussion of marriage in a religious and a legal context; an overview of the semantic evolution of marriage; a consideration of both arguments; and how we can provide equal access to the very rights and privileges associated with marriage. It is in my view that equality precedes religious thought, that equality is universal, and that we will find common ground on the issue of same sex marriage, it’s just a matter of when.
Concepts of marriage
The concept of marriage in America refers to two separate things. Marriage is both a civil institution and also a religious one. The civil institution of marriage offers practical benefits to both partners consisting of contractual rights having to do with taxes; health insurance; pension benefits; care and custody of children; hospital visitation rights; and inheritance after death.
Marriage also happens to be a religious institution as it offers a commitment of both partners to love, honor and cherish one another, in sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, until death. But is marriage a religious issue? Yes, in that we can only understand marriage with reference to religion. But what a couple forms is actually a legal entity. Marriage carries religious dimensions because it affirms a religiously rooted idea of total communion between two souls. It is a purist, perfectionist ideal of mutual fidelity for life. But the original purpose of marriage has changed over the millennia and the religious issue of marriage has shifted over time according to social norms and values.
Concepts of marriage have changed before
At first, marriage produced a proper contract of distribution of property, land and other chattel, which included the very wife as nothing else but property. Marriage was originally for the convenience of men – not women – to enlarge property holdings. It began as a patriarchal system of asserting dominance over women. However, by the 1970′s, most states eradicated “head and master laws,” and the word ‘obey’ was also omitted from one’s wedding vows. We have come a long way from the patriarchal ownership of females as property, from a masculine assertion of power over perceived feminine passivity.
Further, before 1967, marriage was considered to be between a man and a woman of the same race. What began as a property based patriarchal system turned into a racist institution that barred different races from joining. Today’s vision of marriage as a union between equal partners of any race is – by recent standards – very radical.
Lastly, it wasn’t until 1215 that the Church declared marriage a sacrament and set up a system of canon law around it. Therefore, although marriage continues to be clothed in meaning by various faiths, marriage is ultimately a variable and culturally conditioned social institution with no inherent religious inspiration. So, is marriage a religious institution? Yes, of course. But is same sex marriage a religious issue? No, same sex marriage is a legal issue; it is a civil secular contract.
Weighing the arguments for and against same sex marriage
…the institution of marriage is already under assault with the institution of divorce
Now, let’s move on and consider both arguments to determine how reasonable each case is. Freedom of religion is a fundamental right that has been inscribed into the Federal Constitution since its inception. Those who oppose same sex marriage regard it as perhaps the greatest moral and social evil to occur since the legalization of abortion.
First, social conservatives argue same sex marriage would weaken the institution of marriage, thereby making it less sacred. Does marriage become meaningless if same sex couples are allowed to participate in this institution? Well, the institution of marriage is already under assault with the institution of divorce. Surely, the institution of marriage is less sacred when one marries, divorces, and marries again. Is the second or even third marriage ‘less real’ than the first? Although once shunned by our society, we now accept divorce and honor remarriage. This change in social attitudes may have resulted from the increasing rate of divorce over the years.
Moreover, for those who think same sex marriage belittles the institution of marriage, what about those who marry for lust or money? Reality television series like “The Bachelor” and “Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire” seem to ridicule the institution of marriage much more than two committed people of the same sex who love each other deeply. What about those who marry for other advantages besides love? Case in point, a friend recently married someone she barely knew in order to receive a Green Card and become a U.S. citizen. I myself even considered marriage as a last resort to obtain federal recognition as an independent and receive student aid in college. Lastly, what about polygamy? Certainly, polygamy weakens the sacred values of marriage as it is supposed to be a union between two people. How can the union of any two loving and committed people affect another person’s marriage negatively? It doesn’t. If anything, same sex marriage reinforces the importance of committed relationships and would thus strengthen the institution of marriage.
The “traditional family”
Next, opponents argue that same sex marriage usurps the value of the traditional family. Social conservatives believe a union between a man and a woman is the bedrock of a healthy society, and leads to stable families and children who grow up as productive adults. The concept of family is fundamental to marriage. But what about people who enter into marriage who are infertile or past the age of reproducing? Unquestionably, these marriages are still respected and honored by the state. Furthermore, to have people of the same sex setup a marital lifestyle yet raise children outside marriage sends the wrong cultural signals. The largest cultural problem in America is not that gay people want to get married, but instead that straight people are not getting married or staying married. The bedrock of a healthy society should be about encouraging what is best for the children and what is best is for the couple, which is to be in a stable relationship filled with love. Ultimately, we all want our children to grow up in stable homes, and what happens in the bedroom has nothing to do with all of this.
Although far fetched, opponents also argue that same sex marriage has never historically been recognized. On the other hand, this was the same reasoning used by proponents of slavery, opponents of equal treatment for women, opponents of the civil rights movement, etc. Quite frankly, it is not enough to oppose same sex marriage because historically, it has not been recognized.
Scriptural marriage values abhorred today
“Christian” love: Protestors and members of the Westboro
Baptist Church – strict opponents of homosexuality
Scripture is often used as a foundation for objections to same sex marriage. However, there are many contradictions regarding the concept of marriage in Scripture. Working examples include Abraham, who slept with his servant after discovering his wife, Sarah, was infertile; Jacob, who fathered children with four different women; and Abraham, Jacob, David, Solomon, and the Kings of Judah and Israel, who were all polygamists. Monogamy only became the norm in the Christian world in the 16th century.
Additionally, biblical law abhors divorce, something society has institutionalized, while the Old Testament endorses slavery, a practice that America now universally considers shameful. What we have learned is that a mature view of scriptural authority requires us, as we have done in the past, to move beyond literalism. We cannot look to the Bible as a marriage manual. The Bible was written for a world so unlike our own, and it’s impossible to apply its rules at face value today to ours.
The case for same sex marriage
Earlier, same sex marriage was identified as a legal issue. As a secular civil contract, marriage cannot be controlled by a religious body. Likewise, religion should not have a part in the political affairs of same sex marriage.
While the US Constitution states that the church and state are to remain separate, it also demands equal treatment. Sexual orientation should not be a factor in how one is treated, and same sex couples should be treated no differently than their heterosexual counterparts.
It is imperative that we uphold principles of nondiscrimination and equal treatment for all. Same sex couples are often without the basic rights and privileges currently enjoyed by heterosexual couples that legally marry. Imagine loving somebody unconditionally and wanting to spend the rest of your life with him/her. Then, imagine if your lover was dying in the hospital and you were not allowed to sit by his/her side merely because you were not recognized as the spouse. Imagine what it would feel like to have to lie about who you are in order to gain this hospital visitation right. Discriminating against same sex couples is oppression. It is wrong and completely contrary to the ever-evolving concept of civil rights. It is not about giving rights to some and not to others, it is about allowing everyone access to three basic rights established in the U.S. Declaration of Independence: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Denying consenting adults of the same sex the right to form a lawful union that is protected and respected by the state denies two basic rights of the individual: liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The insights of our Founding Fathers are critically threatened if same sex marriage is not allowed. Additionally, using the term civil union or domestic partnership without providing equal rights is dangerously similar to the ‘separate but equal’ clause enacted during segregation. And if civil unions or domestic partnerships allow for the same rights and privileges as marriage, then why is a different term – which carries the same semantic meaning as marriage – necessary?
In America, people are allowed to enjoy freedom of ideas, thoughts and opinions regarding one’s choice of religion. We have the right to believe whatever we want, but we do not have the right to impose our moral beliefs on others, and likewise take away people’s rights. It is the foundation of a nation to have the ability to hold different opinions and morals.
As tolerance and acceptance grows within our global community, we will hopefully see a shift towards having a greater respect for each person’s religion and beliefs, resulting in a harmonic gathering of ideals that promote equality for all people. It is time to bring more love and less hate into the arena, and we can start by moving from a fixation on the sacrament of marriage to the promotion of the sacramentality of human relationships.
Editorial note: This article references the gay marriage debate in the United States. The debate over gay marriage has yet to occur in Barbados where, under local laws, homosexuals can face life imprisonment if caught and prosecuted.
Leave a Reply
- I visited Sam Lord's Castle for the first time in 1968, I was apprentice mechani...
- What a Bajan national tradgedy that the castle is gone. I think a greater traged...
- My late wife,June, and I spent a fabulous fortnight at Sam Lord's Castle in 2002...
- It is pretty interesting how the judge ruled in this case, giving this mentally ...
- My husband and I and several friends stayed at Sam Lord's Castle in the 90's. W...
- We spent our honeymoon there in 1987 while it was a Marriot. It was a wonderful...
- It is very sad to see what has happened to sam lords castle. my husband and me s...
- A person who refuses to follow the law of the land is a criminal. They have comm...
CARICOM Affairs - Mar 13, 2010 14:30 - 0 Comments
More In CARICOM Affairs
- World Bank offers CARICOM debt assistance
- Harpooning Caribbean tourism: Swallowing a dead rat
- Region in drought: the thirsty Caribbean
- Disasters need more than prayers
- To OAS or not to OAS: That is the question
News & Current Affairs - Mar 14, 2010 20:37 - 0 Comments
More In News & Current Affairs
- Region in drought: the thirsty Caribbean
- Professor Rex Nettleford is dead
- Caribbean islands prepare to take in Haitian refugees
- Powerful 7.3 earthquake and aftershocks hit Haiti, tsunami watch issued
- Dominican Prime Minister Roosevelt Skerrit assumes chairmanship of CARICOM
OP-Ed & Features, Gender & Sexuality - Feb 6, 2010 14:07 - 0 Comments
More In Gender & Sexuality
- Barbados Family Minister says men deserve more legal rights to their children
- On World AIDS Day 2009, sexual minorities are still criminals in the Caribbean
- The same sex marriage debate: separating religious rites from civil rights
- Words hurt: is it time for hate speech legislation in Barbados?
- A Young Spin on an Old Tale: Youth and HIV/AIDS