After the Iowa Supreme Court’s decision last Friday to legalize gay marriage in that state, and after this morning’s veto-breaking vote in the Vermont legislature to make same-sex marriage legal there, voices are sure to be raised, mostly on the religious right, about “defending marriage” and “defending the sanctity of marriage.”
While I’m proud of both these states for the measures they’ve taken to ensure equal protection under the law, it seems to me that the “problem” with gay marriage stems from the un-holiest marriage of all: states have for too long been in bed with the churches in the matter of marriage, and it’s time the states filed for divorce.
For too long the word “marriage” has referred both to what churches do and what states do, and that’s a serious problem because it allows some religious groups to walk all over the rights of people who are not in any way affiliated with their religion in the name of “defending” their own limited definition of marriage and family.
While a couple can get a marriage license and obtain a civil marriage without going through a church, the rules of churches still apply (or did, and still do in most states) about who gets that license and who gets turned away.
It works well for these churches to have their traditions and beliefs codified into laws because it lends the weight of the state’s apparatus to enforcing their views even outside their congregations, but it’s not working so well for a lot of the rest of us.
Iowa’s Court decision was elegant in that it addressed (without being asked) the religious view of marriage and made clear that the decision will not force churches to do anything differently than they are now. It simply says that if the state is going to be involved in the marriage business, the state has a constitution to uphold that promises equal protection under the law for all its citizens.
It’s incredibly sad to me that so many states have been quick to amend their constitutions “in defense of marriage,” as if the sanctity or stability of any two people’s marriage will be threatened by someone else having that piece of paper, no matter their gender. The driving forces behind these amendments are religious people and organizations who seek to maintain their long-standing hegemony over marriage, civil or otherwise.
It’s a pretty good business, having a sizable corner on the marriage market–especially if you have politicians in power who codify laws to encourage the teaching of abstinence-until-marriage to kids. Then, not only do you get to say who can get married, you also have a corner on the permission-to-have-sex market, and a better shot at getting indoctrination access to the progeny those marriages create.
Pretty sweet deal for the churches, but it runs way afoul of the separation of church and state, which is one of the fundamentals of our democracy. States should not be in the marriage business, but if they are, they should not be in the business of codifying church-based prejudice simply because what the state does and what churches do (marriage, that is) are called the same thing.
I have to wonder, after Iowa’s decision, how we can reconcile our, or any other state’s, “one man-one woman” constitutional amendment with the equal protection guaranteed to all from the time of each Constitution’s ratification. Are we heading down the slippery slope to “all people are created equal, but some are more equal than others?”
Too, lots of folks are going to be hollering about “liberal judges”–silly in Iowa’s case because those justices were appointed by Republicans. The reason judges are appointed rather than elected, and the reason their terms are not limited is to avoid the tyranny of the majority, and to prevent the sorts of decisions that get made along partisan lines in preparation for an election cycle.
The thing Iowa and Vermont have in common is their propensity, even considering some pretty strong conservative undercurrents, toward doing the right thing when the chips are down. When your constitution says it’s going to give equal protection, then you honor that contract and you fulfill its promise, even if you know there’ll be backlash, even if your own heart isn’t sure.
I’d be surprised if all those Republican-appointed Iowa justices were as sure of their own feelings as they were of what the Constitution called them to do.
I don’t believe that states are going to get out of the marriage business anytime soon, but I think these decisions are good steps toward differentiating between a civil contract and a religious ceremony, fulfilling the promise of equal protection, and–yeah!–and creating a more perfect union.