On Valentine’s Day, I wrote an article for Huffington Post about my personal experience of getting a civil union license instead of a marriage license. I wrote about how it felt to be relegated to separate-but-equal status because same-sex marriage is not yet legal in Illinois, where I live and chose to have my wedding. As I expected, the piece drew hundreds of comments from readers eager to debate gay marriage.
Thankfully, the lion’s share of the comments was supportive and congratulatory. But, of course, there were a handful of naysayers, most of whom chided me for trying to force religious institutions to accept my gay marriage. Here’s what one reader had to say:
Then, there was this person:
I had to laugh at those kinds of comments because what these readers didn’t know is that I actually had a religious wedding. My wife is Jewish and wanted a traditional Jewish wedding. I consider myself agnostic, but in an uncharacteristic display of compromise, I agreed to a religious wedding. We had the whole nine yards: a rabbi, seven blessings in Hebrew and a chuppah. We signed a Ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) and my wife broke a glass at the end of our ceremony.
In the eyes of God (at least the one who’s in charge of a liberal suburb on the North side of Chicago), I am married. It’s the Illinois and U.S. governments that don’t recognize my union as a marriage.
Ironic, isn’t it?
I think most people (even the smart and articulate ones) have such a flimsy understanding of how marriage actually works in the U.S. People reflexively associate getting married with “going to the chapel,” so they assume that when gay people and our supporters advocate for marriage equality that we want to force religious folks to embrace something they don’t believe in. What so often gets lost in the debate over gay marriage is that it is governments – not churches – that grant marriage rights. Priests, ministers and rabbis can perform religious marriage ceremonies and they are among the people who can sign marriage certificates. But, they certainly are not the only people with the legal authority to sign marriage licenses. A judge or other certified officiant can just as easily do the job. Religious weddings, as beautiful and meaningful as they may be to many people, are purely symbolic.
That’s why I find it so maddening that debates about gay marriage so often get hung up on the rights of religious organizations. In fact, that is exactly what inspired me to write my Valentine’s Day article for Huffington Post. That is the day that the Illinois Senate was hearing the gay marriage bill. Coverage of the debates was streaming live online. I tuned in just as Republican Senator Dale Righter, who represents a po-dunk region in Central Illinois, was grilling Democratic Senator Heather Steans, one of the gay marriage bill’s co-sponsors.
Righter’s line of questioning was focused around whether religious groups would be forced to permit same-sex marriages on their premises. He seemed to be hung up on some imaginary church basement in rural Illinois, where he was envisioning hoards of gay folks flocking for their weddings. His fear, I gleaned, was that since the imaginary church basement is sometimes used for imaginary pre-school classes that it would be deemed an educational facility, and therefore, the affiliated church would not be exempt from performing gay marriages on religious principle.
OK, first of all, Senator Righter, no self-respecting gay person is going to get married in some dingy church basement in the middle-of-nowhere Illinois. Ever. In five million years.
I am a strident supporter of marriage equality, but I have no problem with any religious group opting out because they don’t condone same-sex unions. To answer one HuffPo reader’s question posed to me in the comments section: No, I don’t want the “religious right to adopt my worldview of the ‘M-word.’” What I want is to be able to file a joint federal tax return with my wife, so we can save a few thousand dollars and buy a new couch. What I’d like is not to be afraid of being fired by a homophobic client because I am married to a woman. What I’d really love is for my wife to automatically be considered the legal parent of the child I hope to give birth to very soon.
None of the things I want can be granted to me or taken away by a church. While I appreciate the acceptance of many religious leaders and their congregations, my happiness does not depend on it. It is the government we need on our side. That is why I am perfectly content to let religious organizations decide for themselves whether or not to permit gay marriage – and I suspect that the vast majority of gay men and lesbians agree with me.
I highly doubt many gay people, dressed in wedding gowns and tuxedoes, will be banging down the doors of churches that don’t want to marry us. Why would we? Especially when there are so many other places of worship welcoming us with open arms.
The Unitarian Church has long been a supporter of same-sex marriage. In 2005, the United Church of Christ voted to recognize and advocate for gay marriage. The Episcopal Church doesn’t perform same-sex marriages, but last year they approved an official blessing for gay relationships.
And then, there are my good friends, the Jews. While there are some sects of Judaism that still oppose same-sex marriage, by and large, gay marriage is a-OK with the Jewish community. Honestly, my wife and I had a harder time finding a rabbi who would perform an interfaith wedding than finding one to marry two lesbians.
Some religious leaders don’t just tolerate gay marriage, they take bold stands in favor of it.
Just last week, one awesome North Carolina church declared that it would not conduct any weddings until same-sex marriage is legal. Instead, the church is offering “relationship blessings” to straight and gay couples alike. That sounds like a brilliant idea to me because that is exactly what religious weddings are anyway – relationship blessings.
A few years ago, a Minnesota synagogue took a similar stand by refusing to sign any marriage licenses until marriage became equally available to everyone in the state.
Can you imagine if the governor of a blue state or the mayor of a liberal city used their position of authority to advocate for marriage equality in such a big way?
As I already established, I’m not a religious person. You’ll rarely catch me siding with organized religion. And, I’m not ignoring the fact that the religious right is, in many cases, leading the fight against marriage equality. But, I hope we can move the debate away from the false notion that legalizing gay marriage would force religious groups to endorse something that contradicts their beliefs. This is about governments – not churches – granting equal legal rights and benefits to their citizens. The houses of worship that want to come along for the ride will do that, and those that don’t will continue to be allowed to decide who they will and will not marry. In the meantime, we can all rest easy that nobody – straight or gay – who has any choice in the matter will ever have a wedding in a church basement in rural Illinois.