Editor’s note: This letter is in response to the column, “All parties have political positions that baffle me,” published April 29, 2020.
To start, arguing that “marriage has always had a religious tradition” is not entirely accurate. Marriage has existed in every known human culture in history, and predates every major religion practiced today. In ancient Mesopotamia, a legal contract was what made a marriage valid, regardless of consummation or ceremony. A great deal of paperwork regarding marriage in ancient Greece and Rome has survived, and while religion played some role, these unions were seen as a civic duty.
However, I think we can agree that the “religious right” you reference is predominately Christian. This isn’t really about whether marriage has always been religious; it’s about whether marriage in the US is Christian.
Marriage is religious for many Americans, but that does not matter legally. The founding fathers were clear about the separation of church and state, and Jefferson went as far as to say “all men shall be free to profess, and…maintain their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities” (A Bill For Establishing Religious Freedom). Religion has no standing in American law, and marriage is a legal institution in this country. None of the requirements for marriage in the United States mention religion, and a religious wedding ceremony is not legally recognized without a government issued certificate. I would argue my party’s stance, that the deeply held religious beliefs of some should not impact, or “diminish”, the civil capacities of others, is more in line with conservative readings of American law than the opposition’s.
The argument that “Gays were offered civil marriages, which would have satisfied their legal concerns about inheritance and sickness”, and the implication that this should have been enough and that their “lifestyle” is being forced on others is completely inaccurate. I hesitated to even engage with it, because it struck me as such a blatantly bad faith argument, something that surprised me coming from you. Civil unions—not marriages—were offered, and unlike marriage, not all states legally recognized civil unions, so their spousal rights (including inheritance and sickness rights) only existed in some places. Civil unions also did not entitle partners to any federal benefits. Civil unions were, objectively, not equal, and did not satisfy all legal concerns.
Furthermore, no religious leader is being forced to perform gay marriages if it violates their religious beliefs, and since you wrote about the Supreme Court Case where that was stated (Masterpiece Cakeshop vs. Colorado Civil Rights Commission), I think there is a good chance you know that.
Finally, many members of the Queer community are religious, and marriage is as religiously significant to them as it is to anyone. Before 2015, their right to practice their religion and the right of religious organizations to declare them worthy of that was impacted by the federal government. If anything, the legalization of gay marriage gives our nation’s people and places of worship more freedom to practice their faith as they choose than they had before.