Who May I Love? (Part I)
Before jumping headlong into the debate over gay "marriage" I feel it necessary to
define exactly what it is that we are debating.
In other words:
What is "marriage"?
After reading many websites and newspaper articles, and after listening to many newscasts and radio talk shows, it is clear to me that much of the debate is caused by not defining what "marriage" is. Take the examples of couples "A" and "B" and "C" below.
Couple "A" stands before a Judge and declares their intention to spend the rest of their lives together. The Judge, acting as a representative of the state, recognizes their union and the ceremony is complete.
Couple "B" stands before a religious leader and declares their intention to spend the rest of their lives together. The religious leader, acting as a representative of their religion, recognizes their union and the ceremony is complete.
Couple "C" stands before a religious leader and declares their intention to spend the rest of their lives together. The religious leader, acting as a representative of their religion, recognizes their union and then states, acting as a representative of the state, "by the power vested in me by the state of ...I now pronounce you…" and recognizes their union again and the ceremony is complete.
Each of the couples “A”, “B”, and “C” have been through a “marriage” ceremony and are “married”. But the word “married”, or “marriage”, has a different meaning depending on which couple’s “marriage” is used. In order to really discuss "marriage", as it relates to the debate over gay "marriage",we need to understand the differences between the unions of couples "A", "B", and "C" above.
In the case of couple "A", there is no religious ceremony during the uniting of the couple. The union between the two individuals is only recognized by the civil authority, not by any religious authority.
In the case of couple "B", there is no civil ceremony during the uniting of the couple. The union between the two individuals is only recognized by the religious authority, not by any civil authority.
In the case of couple "C", there is both a religious and a civil ceremony during the uniting of the couple. The union between the two individuals is recognized by both the civil and religious authorities. As part of the uniting of the couple, two different ceremonies have been conducted in unison. Most couples who are united like couple “C” do not realize that they have been through two different ceremonies, and have been recognized as united by two very different authorities.
The unions of couple “A” and “C” are what the state and federal governments, both civil authorities, consider "marriage".
The unions of couple "B" and "C" are what religious authorities consider "marriage".
So the word "marriage" does mean different things, depending on the people and the circumstances involved.
The simplest way to clear up this problem would be to call the religious uniting of
two people a "marriage" and the legal uniting of two people a civil union".
However, our elected officials have written our laws governing what would be
called a "civil union" by using the term "marriage", instead of the term "civil
union". (For a few examples of the word "marriage" being used to
define the legal union of two people see
Even the state of Vermont, which has a purely civil definition of the union of two people, uses the term "marriage" instead of "civil union". According to Vermont law:
Marriage is the legally recognized union of one man and one woman.
To further complicate matters, many states have now written into law "civil unions" that are not defined as a legal union of two people, but instead are defined as a subset, or weaker version of, "marriage”. For example, a state recognized “civil union” does not bestow upon the couple federal survivorship rights (for more information see the Defense of Marriage Act) , and may not include (depending on the state) end of death decision rights, property transfer rights, or paternal rights. There are even definitions of "civil union", such as Vermont's, which defines a civil union as being identical to marriage - which is defined as a legal union of one man and one woman. No wonder there's so much confusion!
To add even more confusion to the topic, some states have used the term "domestic partnership" in their attempts to codify homosexual "civil unions".
To delve further into all of the different terms being used and their differing, and sometimes overlapping, definitions start with Wikipedia's entry on Civil Unions.
To learn more about the different state's laws try starting here: http://www.law.cornell.edu/topics/Table_Marriage.htm
In an attempt to be completely clear in this essay,I will not use the terms "civil union" or "marriage". Both of those terms mean different things depending on the people and circumstances involved (as shown above). I will also refrain from using any known legal terms currently being used to describe the union of two people because those terms are already adding to the confusion. Instead I will use the terms "religious marriage" and "civil marriage" as defined below:
Religious marriage - the union of two people that is recognized by a religious authority.
Civil marriage - the union of two people that is recognized by a civil authority.
The differentiation of "religious marriage" and "civil marriage" is much more than just semantics. They have completely different meanings and completely different goals.
The "civil marriage" is all about legalities. It's about the authority to make decisions for another individual, the assumption of property after one individual is deceased, the responsibility of debts and taxes, parental rights, and many other civil and legal concerns. Two people who do not believe there is anything like a god, or do not profess any religion, can have a "civil marriage" and never care if any religious authority recognizes it or not.
Likewise, the "religious marriage" is generally, without respect to any particular religion (I do not claim to be an authority on all the world's religions) seen as the joining of two souls for the purpose of guidance, comfort, assistance to one another through life, and other religious and spiritual concerns. Two people can stand alone, on the top of a mountain or in a field, and declare to their god that they pledge themselves to one another and have a "religious marriage" and never care if the state authorities recognize it or not.
The "religious marriage" and the "civil marriage" are completely separate, and different, and neither needs nor depends upon the other.
Two Debates in One
One can easily recognize that the current debate over gay unions is actually two debates in one. The first debate is that of "religious marriage", where gay individuals are seeking religious recognition of their union. The second debate is that of "civil marriage" where gay individuals are seeking civil recognition of their union.
The first debate of "religious marriage" is addressed in the
WhoMayILove (Part II) essay.
The subject of this essay is the legal attempts to constrain, or not allow, gay unions in “civil marriages” recognized by the state. Since the state may “…make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” (First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States) the laws and amendments being proposed have no effect on “religious marriage”.
It is the second debate of "civil marriage" that may be affected by the legal attempts to prevent gay unions that I address herein.
It is important to realize that we may not create a law preventing gay unions in the form of “civil unions” because we practice a religion that is opposed to it. In the United States of America as part of our freedom of expression of religion, we may not force others to follow our religious practices. If we did legislate our religious beliefs then there would end up being only one religion in the United States. To codify a restraint against gay unions based on religious beliefs would be a violation of the right to freedom of religion. And as Americans, none of us would ever want to do anything that would weaken our religious freedoms.
Once the idea of religious recognition, or religious belief, is removed from the discussion of "civil marriage", many of the reasons for opposing gay unions that have been expressed on radio, television, the internet, and in print media no longer exist. The remaining reasons are either suppositions about societal impact, personal dislikes, or fear of other’s rights being impinged upon or diminished. Americans certainly recognized that a dislike, either personal or societal,of an action is not a valid reason for creating a law prohibiting that action. The remaining two reasons for the prevention of gay unions in the form of “civil marriage” are that gay unions are detrimental to society, or that they impinge on, or diminish another couple’s right to, a “civil marriage”.
A main reason for laws is to resolve situations where two or more citizen’s rights come into conflict with each other. An illustration of this are laws concerning how two people are to proceed when the cars they are driving both come to an uncontrolled intersection at the same time. This is a case where each person's right of freedom of movement comes into conflict. There is no such conflict in the case of gay unions expressed as “civil marriage”. Two individuals getting married does not, in and of itself, impinge upon, or diminish the ability of, two other individuals to also join in a “civil marriage”. There simply is no basis for the prevention of gay unions based on the argument of rights being in conflict. The one remaining reason to prevent gay unions in the form of “civil marriage” is that they are detrimental to our society.
I know of no accredited study that concludes gay unions are detrimental to society. If there are any out there, I invite the reader to email me a copy for consideration.
Legislation of Behavior
It’s very important that whenever a law or constitutional amendment is proposed, everyone should place themselves into the position of all of the people that would be affected, negatively and/or positively, by the proposed law or amendment and ask themselves one question in two different ways:
"Do I recognize that the government has the authority to affect my life in this way?"
"Do I have the right to affect my neighbor's life in this way?"
And then we should ask one other question:
"Is there some overriding fact or consequence that makes this proposed law necessary and renders the answers to the previous two questions immaterial?"
We should only vote for the proposed law or amendment if the answer to both of the first two questions is "yes", or if the answer to the third question is "yes".
Let's ask the questions:
Do I recognize that the government has the authority to tell me who I may declare as the person with whom I will spend the rest of my life?
In other words: Can the government tell me who I may and may not love?
My answer to this question is "No".
Furthermore, if the government tried to do so, I would openly and publicly defy that government.
Do I have the right to tell my neighbor who they may declare as the person with whom they will spend the rest of their life?
In other words: Can I tell my neighbor who they may and may not love?
My answer to this question is "No".
Who am I to judge my neighbor’s choice with whom to share their life with?
Is there some overriding fact or consequence that makes the answers to the previous questions immaterial?
In other words: Is the "civil marriage" of gay people detrimental to society?
I have read and heard many differing opinions and studies on this subject. But I have never heard of, or read, a study that was considered both open and credible that concluded that gay unions were detrimental to society.
So, for now, my answer to this question is "No".
Americans know that the most precious of our possessions is our rights. We have fought a civil war over our rights. We have gone to prison for our rights. We have marched, been shot down, and hunted because we openly challenge those who would restrict our rights. Americans have made so many sacrifices to protect and ensure our rights that to restrict those rights without taking all precautions to ensure that there is an absolute need to do so would be treasonous. Given that gay unions do not present a conflict of rights, nor a detrimental impact on society, I cannot find any reason to support legislation against gay unions expressed as a “civil marriage” that could be considered either Constitutional or American.
As Americans we do have the right to define our society. In the past we have defined it by encouraging slavery; encouraging racism; encouraging the separation of races; encouraging sexism; and many other definitions that we now look back and ask “How could we have done that?” Today we are again being asked to define our society. I hope that our definition will be one that our children will not have to look back on and ask “How could they have done that?”
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Except where explicitly stated, the opinions, views, and conclusions expressed on this site are solely those of John C. Grady, Jr.