Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Reconciliation or Relinquishment?

This past Sunday The New York Times featured an op-ed by David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch titled, "A Reconciliation on Gay Marriage."

The crux of their "reconciliation":

It would work like this: Congress would bestow the status of federal civil unions on same-sex marriages and civil unions granted at the state level, thereby conferring upon them most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage. But there would be a condition: Washington would recognize only those unions licensed in states with robust religious-conscience exceptions, which provide that religious organizations need not recognize same-sex unions against their will. The federal government would also enact religious-conscience protections of its own. All of these changes would be enacted in the same bill.

The first thing that struck me about this proposal was the phrase "conferring upon them most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage." MOST? Which ones might be selected out? Who's selecting those federal benefits and rights we might not deserve? Then there's the condition: "Washington would recognize only those unions licensed in states with robust religious-conscience exceptions . . . " Who will be deciding what is robust enough? And why, when gay people are fighting for civil marriage rather than religious marriage equality, do we need special "religious-conscience exceptions?" Civil marriage equality doesn't interfere with the rights of religions to marry or not marry whomever they please. "Religious-conscience exceptions," however, would likely interfere with my right to full equality under civil law. 

Vermont, for instance, may very well pass a marriage equality bill this year. It will have no meaning federally, yet, but at the state level, there will be no distinction between the marriage of a gay couple and that of a straight couple. What if a few years down the road, Washington enacts federal civil union legislation but disapproves of a gay couple's marriage license in Vermont because it's too equal to a straight couple's marriage license? Would we have to downgrade our marriage licenses in Vermont or else be denied all federal recognition? This isn't reconciliation, it's division. It's relinquishing our right to equality to the appeasement of the religious, who have no business meddling in civil law. It's a cowardly op-ed, one that everyone who believes in full equality for LGBT citizens should reject.

My complete unpublished response to The New York Times and the authors of the op-ed:

To the Editor:

David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch (Op-Ed, Feb. 22) talk about reaching a reconciliation on "gay marriage." But gay people aren't fighting for "gay marriage," we're fighting for civil marriage equality. There is a difference.

The term "gay marriage" implies that gay people should be herded into a special category separate from "straight marriage." "Straight marriage" is viewed as a static institution, one inextricably linked to tradition. Yet marriage has changed remarkably over the centuries. Women now have a role equal to men in marriage. A black woman is now permitted to marry a white man. Gay people don't seek to upend traditional marriage; we seek to become part of its continuing evolution.

Allowing gay people to marry does not threaten religious freedom. Once gay people are permitted to marry, churches will remain free, as they are now, to marry or not marry whomever they please. That is because civil marriage and religious marriage, though often conflated, are two different things. Straight agnostics and atheists are permitted to marry without question. Straight people of different religions are permitted to marry even though not all of these marriages are sanctioned by the church. Potential conflicts between religious organizations and antidiscrimination laws already exist. Should, for example, a remarried woman, whose first marriage was not annulled, receive benefits for her spouse if she works for a Catholic charitable organization? It should be the obligation of religious organizations to justify discriminatory employment practices.

The fact is religion does not own the word "marriage." If it did, then only church-sanctioned marriages--straight and gay alike--would exist. Everyone else would be permitted civil unions only. Many non-religious people, myself included, would be satisfied with this two-tiered system. But if we are to have a two-tiered system, it should be applied equally, without regard to sexual orientation. Otherwise, it is simply discriminatory.

Would federally recognized civil unions be better than nothing? Of course. On that we can agree. To view civil marriage equality as an "extreme," however, is a dangerous mistake. It relegates gay people to second-class citizenship instead of recognizing that civil marriage equality by definition protects religious freedom. Why is it that Canada has managed to reach reconciliation on marriage without unnecessarily dividing its citizens into better-than and less-than groups? Perhaps it is time to seek guidance from the "cooler heads" of our neighbors to the north when moving towards full civil marriage equality for all Americans.

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