Over the holidays I had lunch with a very good straight friend who also happens to be a die-hard member of the Catholic church. He’s always been supportive of me, but struggled with the idea of same-sex marriage. We’ve talked over the years about this off and on, but this time we talked about “marriage equality” and it all made sense to him. The obstacle for many people, especially those who are older and deeply committed to a religion that does not support gay-anything is understanding the difference between the civil definition of marriage and the religious one. Marriage equality has nothing to do with making any religious organization consecrate any relationship it does not approve of. In fact, the First Amendment to the United States Constitution makes religious freedom an absolute right. In the case of the Catholic Church, under no circumstances would they be required to offer the sacrament of marriage to same-sex couples. And this isn’t any type of special exception. For example, a straight couple who was first married in the Catholic Church can be refused by the Catholic Church to marry in a Catholic Church until and unless they go through the church’s annulment process. There is no legal obligation for the Catholic Church, or any other, to marry anyone, straight or gay. But of course, a church can, as some do now, provide a marriage ceremony to any couple they wish.
Marriage equality matters only to the civil or legal relationship established under the law of the land between two people. There are both practical and social benefits that make marriage a matter of equality under the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution. There are over 1100 federal rights and benefits given to couples who have a marriage that is recognized legally by the government. Many of these rights and benefits are significant. Of course, there are similar rights at the state level applicable to legally married couples as well making this issue of equality notable under the law. Many books have been written outlining in detail the many rights involved, but for example, consider how a partner’s health benefits are taxed differently and the differences in the amounts of money married couples pay in income tax compared to those couples who must file separately.
Why is the word “marriage” significant? Why doesn’t something like, “civil union work?” The word “marriage’ has a certain recognition in our society that may or may not include an association with having made a religious commitment. For example, if you are in a work or social setting, and someone who doesn’t know you asks, “are you married?” A reply of, “yes, I’m married” discloses that you are in a legally committed relationship, but doesn’t say anything about your sexual orientation. Having to reply, “no, I’m in a civil union (or domestic partnership)” says not only that you are in a legally committed relationship, but also that you are gay. In some social circles that may not be a big deal, but it could be in others and, the bottom line is, that it is different and not equal.
The term “marriage equality” is more appropriate to describe the civil right we are fighting for. Whether you see yourself getting married or not, having that option available is an important right that you should be concerned about. Marriage is a legal institution that provides stability for relationships and families. This is the reason the government had an interest in marriage from the beginning and all couples should be able to benefit from this source of stability no matter their sexual orientation. Unfortunately, many government leaders don’t understand any of this. The good news is, however, that some are coming around much like the governor from Washington.