Vol. 21 No. 3 - Published by the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Inc. - April 2004
By Annie Laurie Gaylor
The Associated Press ran a charming photograph in March of the beaming Mayor of San Francisco beside two blushing brides--dressed identically in light veils and strapless white wedding gowns.
That winsome photo captured the festive, celebratory flavor of the mayor's insurrectional initiative to permit gay marriages in San Francisco. Mayor Gavin Newsom happens to be married (to a woman) and happens to be what is obviously a very liberal Catholic. No matter; he is heroically challenging his Church's sway, and upholding the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution in its place.
More than 4,000 gay couples got hitched in San Francisco over the course of a month. More than 3,000 had made appointments to get licenses at the time a court halted the parade.
The ripple effect has been amazing. Mayor Jason West of New Platz, N.Y., followed suit. Although he was charged with a misdemeanor, before you know it, a second East Coast mayor had stepped forward. This one not only offered to perform gay marriages, but announced he'll be marrying his gay partner, too.
In Portland, Ore., where the Multnomah County commissioners approved gay marriages starting March 3, the county witnessed as many marriages there in seven days as are usually recorded in the course of a third of a year. More than 2,000 gay marriages took place in less than three weeks, winning Portland the title as new "gay marriage capital."
In Massachusetts, whose Supreme Court got the ball rolling in November with its landmark ruling ordering the legislature to permit gay marriages, polls have shown more than half the state supports legalizing gay marriage.
No one knows what will happen in the complicated court battles to ensue. But doesn't it seem we have passed some point of no return?
In this era of revolving-door marriages, shouldn't our marriage-trumpeting society be giving its secular blessings to couples so touchingly eager to pledge their love and commitment to each other? Who really wants to go around hurting the feelings of same-sex partners, anyway?
Religionists, that's who. The county board in uneducable and religion-drenched Rhea Co., Tenn.--home of the Scopes trial, and our current lawsuit over blatant religious instruction in the public schools--voted unanimously on March 16 to "ban" homosexuals. Two days later, the board had the grace to rescind that vote. Associated Press reported that 12 year old Caitlin Kinney, accompanying her mother to the meeting, said: "I think they should go further, try to see if they can ban them. It's not a Christian thing."
Religious homophobia knows no bounds if it is now asking little girls to put on the badge of hatred and do its dirty work for it. (Such youthful bigotry should not be surprising, considering that Rhea County children have been unlawfully proselytized by fundamentalist Christians in their public schools for over half a century, a practice halted by the Foundation's federal court victory there, now on appeal.)
The "March madness" gay marriage phenomenon has produced an unexpected dividend. Before, the concept of a civil union (currently only lawful in Howard Dean's Vermont) was a political hot potato. Suddenly, many public officials are nominally endorsing the idea. Even Bush--who, kowtowing to the religious right, immediately endorsed a constitutional amendment to limit marriage to "one man and one woman"--said state legislatures should be left to define "legal arrangements other than marriage."
(Of course, in March it was revealed that homosexuals can now be fired from the federal workplace because of their sexual orientation, under a ruling by the Office of Special Counsel. According to The Federal Times, the White House has begun deleting references to discrimination based on sexual orentation from government websites.)
Is reserving "civil unions" for gays, while keeping "marriage" for heteros, truly an acceptable compromise? The idea is to entrust the state with civil unions (for any couple, gay or straight), while "marriage" would be left to the church. In the recent debate, marriage has been continually referred to as a church institution or sacrament. The clear implication is that a strictly secular ceremony ain't the real thing, but hey--those of us who are atheists and agnostics get married, too!
Redefining "marriage" as a strictly religious institution is deeply troubling, with grave implications for the rights of nonbelieving couples, gay or straight. All marriages are "civil" in nature (jokes aside). The state requires that all couples apply for and file civil marriage licenses with designated government bodies. Clergy are simply among the pool of recognized officiants.
Religious denominations should not be given a monopoly on marriage, nor should the powers of civil officiants, such as judges and justices of the peace, be limited to issuing some pale imitation of a marriage license.
To date, only the Unitarian Universalists and the United Church of Christ wholeheartedly approve gay ministers. They are the only major denominations embracing same-sex marriages. (Cheers for the two UU ministers criminally arrested for performing gay weddings in Ulster Co., N.Y.) The United Methodist Church has a "don't ask, don't tell" policy that actually bans "self-avowed homosexuals" as ministers. That denomination just placed Rev. Karen Dammann on humiliating "trial" for being an open lesbian, after she married her partner in March. (She was exonerated, but the policy wasn't altered.)
In Wisconsin, our notably Neanderthal legislature in March rushed through a bill to amend the state constitution--the first of two required in consecutive sessions before a referendum would be held--to prohibit gay marriages and facsimiles thereof. The overbroadness of the wording would forbid civil unions, and jeopardize existing domestic partnership benefits.
Some 13 other states are entertaining similar designs to amend their constitutions to ban gay marriages, although the feds might beat them to it. At least Congressional backers of such an amendment announced they are retooling their proposed amendment to permit legislatures to create civil unions.
True, reasonable people, freethinkers and gay rights activists included, can disagree philosophically over "civil unions" versus "same-sex marriages." But it must be pointed out that the only organized opposition to gay rights and gay marriage comes from "faith-based" groups and their leaders.
The Episcopalian/Anglican church is falling apart over the ordination of one gay bishop. The Mormon church has long underwritten anti-gay marriage lobbying campaigns. The Roman Catholic church deserves the prize as arch opponent of gay rights. Last July, the Vatican declared global war against gay marriage, openly ordering Catholic politicians to vote in lockstep against such legislation, saying Catholic politicians are "obliged" to oppose "the legal recognition of homosexual unions," because to do otherwise is "gravely immoral." Their career celibates, especially in Massachusetts and the Canadian provinces (three as of March) where courts have now approved gay marriages, are openly lobbying their congregations.
At the annual conference in Dallas of U.S. Catholic bishops in November, aggressive statements against contraception, abortion and same-sex unions were issued. The U.S. Conference will soon announce (I can hardly wait!) how they intend to punish Catholic politicians who vote against Catholic doctrine.
In Wisconsin, we saw a foreshadow of hierarchical micromanagement of Catholic politicians. Bishop Raymond L. Burke of La Crosse sent out intimidating warning letters last year to selected public officials, warning them they were not Catholics in good standing for voting against church social policy.
Not to let fundies off the hook, Lou Sheldon of Traditional Family Values and others in the religious right are openly colluding to make the nonissue of gay marriage the main issue of the 2004 elections. Gay marriage has become the ultimate "gotcha."
As Nation columnist Katha Pollit has wisely written: "Gay marriage--it's not about sex, it's about separation of church and state."
Robert Reich warned recently in Prospect magazine: "Gay marriage [is] another front in the religious wars. . . . there is no room for liberty in a theocracy."
Finding succor in hateful biblical injunctions against gays, Roman Catholics, Mormons, Southern Baptists, and other fundamentalist denominations may pretend to love that "sinner." But they sure preach intolerance against the civil rights of the "sinning." Religion, that 800-pound gorilla in every gay living room, needs to be called to account.
Annie Laurie Gaylor, a co-founder of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, is editor of Freethought Today. She and Dan Barker were married in 1989 by a county judge in Wisconsin in a civil, secular ceremony.