We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.
- The Declaration of Independence
With the hotly debated passage of Proposition 8 in California, which amends the state constitution to prohibit marriage between members of the same gender, as well as the passage of similar propositions in Arizona and Florida, a lot of people are asking the question: what is marriage?
We each have our own personal definition of marriage, which may cause us to embrace or reject it in our own lives, but how we define it legally and as a state-issued license is really what lies at the heart of the issue. In a country founded on equal rights, how does sexual preference give the state authority to grant or deny its citizens their rights? What interest does the state have in limiting the definition of marriage to only apply to heterosexual couples? The answer is: none. The interest lies elsewhere. These state bans on homosexuals’ access to the same legal and social status as their heterosexual compatriots are simply unconstitutional.
As we analyze what marriage means in our society, perhaps the marriage that most pressingly needs to be examined is the messy one that has plagued our nation from its inception: that between church and state. One of those murky issues that spans the two, how we define marriage is a good representation of where our society stands today on the relationship of religion and government, which, although clearly spelled out as separated in the Constitution, continue to drag out their centuries-long divorce, battling and baffling the sober, secular members of the population. For secularists, the definition of marriage is simple: a governmental institution requiring a legal contract between two people, and affording them privileges and protections under the law regarding areas of property rights, healthcare, childcare, citizenship, etc. However, as with most aspects of human life, the definition of marriage becomes much more complex when regarded through the prism of religion.
An oft-repeated phrase of those who oppose gay marriage is that it is a sacred institution “between one man and one woman.” This personal belief, however, is not explicitly supported by scripture, as many would claim. Numerous quotes are tossed about from the Bible attesting to this supposedly divine institution, but the institution of marriage was created by man, just as the Bible was written by men. And that Bible does not state that marriage is a union between one man and one woman, but rather makes many references to polygamy (or, more specifically, polygyny) in the Old Testament (Exodus 21:10, Deuteronomy 21:15, Solomon with his famous 700 wives and 300 concubines in 1 Kings 11:3, among numerous others), and the New Testament does not explicitly refute it. The “one man one woman” belief is an adjustment to the institution, polygamy only becoming illegal in the United States in 1862, with the passage of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act.
If the definition of marriage can be altered from “one man, many women,” to “one man, one woman,” why can’t it be altered to “one human, one human?” From the state’s point of view there should be no difference in a marriage contract between two people of the opposite or the same sex, just as there can be no difference in a business contract. Hence, a ban on same-sex marriage is outright religiously-informed state-sanctioned homophobia, masqueraded as acceptable because the majority of voters bought into the propaganda. In California, the religious right spent millions to mobilize volunteers and get out the message across the ethnic spectrum to pass the ban, with a campaign that “had begun with white evangelical churches but had spread to more than 1,130 Hispanic churches whose pastors convinced their members that same-sex marriage threatened the traditional family.” (NYTimes)
Moreover, members of the Mormon Church, the very religious sect that practiced polygamy in the United States until the late 19th century, were huge contributors to the cause, donating roughly half of the $40 million raised by the Yes to 8 campaign, “including a $1 million donation from Alan C. Ashton, the grandson of a former president of the Mormon Church. The money allowed the drive to intensify a sharp-elbowed advertising campaign, and support for the measure was catapulted ahead; it ultimately won with 52 percent of the vote.” (NYTimes) Interesting, given that the Mormons’ defiance of the outlawing of polygamy led to the 1878 unanimous Supreme Court Reynolds v. United States decision which declared that “laws are made for the government of actions, and while they cannot interfere with mere religious belief and opinions, they may with practices.” (findlaw.com) In other words, you can believe what you want to believe, and you can practice your religion, so long as you do not engage in any activity contrary to the law of the land. Denied what they felt was their right to practice their religion as prescribed by their doctrine they now want to expand that law of the land to prohibit others from practicing their beliefs, specifically because it is contrary to their religious doctrine.
With laws banning same-sex marriage now on the books in 30 states, it is time to take a truly sober look at what is happening to our government, and to our society at large. The Religious Right rants against so-called “secular fascism” destroying the moral fabric of our society, but it is the Religious Right that want to defy the founding principles of the nation, and pick and choose what rights and privileges are granted under the law, according to their own “moral” values. The Declaration of Independence stated that to secure the rights of Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” Granted, these state laws or amendments to state constitutions have been passed through the democratic process, with the majority consent of the governed (after the most expensive campaigns for their passage (as well as their defeat) have been waged). But are these laws even legal? Can the majority vote to deny legal rights to a minority? These questions will undoubtedly be raised and tested in the courts, the hopeful result of which will be the barring of any religiously motivated laws from becoming destructive to the safety and happiness of any portion of the population.
The ninth amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which, under our federalist system of government, trumps the individual state constitutions, clearly states: “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.” In exercising our rights, including, most emphatically, our right to freedom of religion, we must not deny or disparage any of our other rights, such as our inalienable right to the pursuit of Happiness.