Marriage is not a secular institution

Courtesy of hereandnow.wbur.org

Recently, President Obama announced a shift in his position regarding same-sex marriage.  He said, “It is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same sex couples should be able to get married,” moving away from his 2008 position opposing same-sex marriage and supporting civil unions.  He describes this shift as an “evolution” and claims that he could no longer deny incredibly committed same-sex relationships including those of military personnel, as they fight for our freedom and feel constrained because they cannot commit themselves in marriage.

Additionally, Obama’s new position coincides with a shift in national polls, which now support same-sex marriage by approximately 9 percent, as opposed to 2009 when polls opposed same-sex marriage by approximately 8 percent.  This development, while it is significant and lends support to the gay community, will not resolve the legal hurdles facing gay Americans in their struggle for equality.

In response, news sources across the country were quick to report a clear difference between Obama and Romney, but the difference is not as clear as professed by political strategists.  In his 1994 Senate bid, when seeking support from the Log Cabin Club of Massachusetts, a gay GOP group, Romney said, “I am more convinced than ever before that as we seek to establish full equality for America’s gay and lesbian citizens, I will provide more effective leadership than my opponent [Edward Kennedy].”  He went on to say, “…I do not believe in discriminating against people based upon their sexual orientation…” but also added, “…I oppose same-sex marriage.  Marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.”

Romney’s position is obviously contrary to “full equality,” as he claims, but his statement was significant then, as it is now, because he acknowledged that gays are discriminated against, and this position does not favor North Carolina’s recent legislation outlawing gay marriages and civil unions or similar laws in 30 other states.  And while political analysts debate Obama’s motivation they overlook the relevance of this development, as it relates to a shift in socially accepted norms.

Our constitution and social norms have spearheaded many changes in laws throughout our history, such as the Civil Rights Amendment and women’s right to vote. The shift in polls supporting same-sex marriage is an indication that social norms have changed, which may create opportunity for changes in the law favoring same-sex marriage.  However, this opportunity can only be realized if politicians set aside their religious teachings and adhere to their oath of office to uphold the constitution.

Romney’s position and President Obama’s previous position are anchored in religion, though they do not say, “My religious beliefs prevent me from accepting same-sex marriage.”  This position is trapped between religion and duty, and now only Romney has placed his religious teachings above his duty, but not so vehemently as noted in his opposition to discrimination against gays and lesbians.

On the other hand, Obama has found his courage, pushing aside his religious teachings for the moment and addressing his duty to a secular government and issues of equality for gay couples.  The presidential oath of office reads, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend The Constitution of the United States.”  It does not say, “Except when my faith differs with the constitution will I then discriminate.”

President Obama’s new found position is cause for celebration because it marks a moment when our leader placed his duty to country before his religious teachings―a position required of all politicians.  Unfortunately, these developments will not combat state level legislation banning same-sex marriage until the definition of marriage is resolved.  And the historical construction of marriage reveals an undeniable connection between religion and the establishment of marriage, which is why conservative religious communities oppose same-sex marriage so passionately.  Marriage is a sacred sacrament, a union between a man and woman, blessed by God and these citizens refuse to accept same-sex marriage because it violates their religious teachings.

Therefore, people of all faiths should be entitled to preserve the sacred sacrament of marriage, as they define it, but only within the confines of their church and not within the confines of government.  The sacrament of marriage, as noted above, should not be a union established within government.  It does not belong to a secular government that claims no religion as its own. Marriage has a contentious historic origin; it moved from religion to government and back until it finally came to rest on the steps of both, while retaining its religious definition.

Therefore, the US Federal Government must move away from “marriage” and recognize all citizens’ legal relationships including like genders within this understanding and for all purposes, as civil unions.  This would preserve the sacrament of marriage for people of faith and the separation of church and state.  Our government claims freedom of choice and equality for all, but freedom does not give to one that which it denies to another.

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