Why Prop 8 is no big deal

Friends of mine have been wailing and wringing hands over the success of California’s Proposition 8 banning gay marriage. I just can’t get worked up over it.

It’s not that I’m indifferent about gay rights. Far from it; I’ve been a straight activist on these issues for years now. Some of my nearest relatives are gay, and I worked for a while at a southern college that has a quiet reputation as a refuge for homosexual students. During the Clinton era of “don’t ask, don’t tell” I was a guest on Birmingham talk radio to advocate for equality in the military. (The station never did let me have a tape of that show.)

I usually walk with friends in the annual Gay Pride parade. I’ve done public speaking and private arguing for equality, and have sent letters on behalf of jailed homosexuals in eastern Europe. Now and then I’ve sat and just listened for a long time to a man who hated himself for desiring men and not women. I’ve interviewed gay Christians who preach, or who want to. I’ve tried to find consoling words to say to a woman whose brother was murdered for being a queer. I’ve nursed a baby girl who has two mommies; she’s my niece. This stuff matters to me.

Still, I don’t much care about Prop 8. Sure, it stings to have a majority of California voters say they don’t want same-sex couples to get married. But take a closer look. The vote doesn’t mean what you think it does.

First of all, if you’re gay and want to marry, you can find plenty of ministers who will oblige you right now. Even here in Birmingham, in the Heart of Dixie, I can give you a list of churches (and a synagogue) who are fully committed to celebrating gay marriages equally. It’s true that a larger number of congregations will flatly refuse you because they think that homosexuality is a sin. But you only need one church.

The real problem, which this issue has brought to light, is the hybrid status of “marriage” as both legal and sacred. The U.S. Constitution prohibits government from either promoting or discouraging any religion, or discriminating between individuals on the basis of creed. Our legal tradition defines the principle of “separation of church and state” as a constitutional doctrine.

So how come we ask ministers to fill out marriage licenses on behalf of the state? This confusion of roles opens the door to the political exploitation of religious faith.

In the long run, I’d like to see “marriage” defined solely as a sacrament or religious rite (Baptist, Hindu, Roman Catholic, etc.) and the legal status of marriage redefined as “civil union” for any two or more people who choose to live together, married or unmarried, as sexual partners or not.

Regardless of what voters decide at the polls, and no matter what legislatures do, this will remain true: Some ministers will marry gay couples with their congregations’ support, some would do so if only their congregations didn’t object, and some will never agree to gay marriages and don’t care what anyone else thinks. As a pluralistic society, we should be fine with that.

What we must not do is insist that the power of the state be used to compel people to comply with an interpretation of religious doctrine. The state’s business is to ensure equal justice, not to impose religious values or police bedrooms (except in the interest of minors). Instead of waging political struggles over the “definition of marriage,” we should be taking the state out of the debate and letting the followers of each religion define marriage in accordance with their conscience.

P.S.: Because this is America, and because of the perception that African Americans disproportionately oppose gay marriage, there’s a tendency to do a two-bit “gays vs. blacks” analysis of the politics around this issue. Elle, Ph.D. wrote last month about how this approach benefits no one.

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