The future of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness

The Empire’s online photo coverage of the 4th of July festivities included one without a caption. Seven young adults are beaming with pride as they hold their parade signs declaring support for gay rights. They’ve got a lot to be smiling about after the recent Supreme Court rulings that declared the Defense of Marriage Act unconstitutional and invalidated California’s voter imposed ban on same sex marriage. And like it or not, people like them will be a significant force in reshaping the American ideal of liberty and justice for all.

Just a week earlier, Sen. Lisa Murkowski became the third Republican in the U.S. Senate to express support for same sex marriage. The announcement didn’t come as a complete surprise. Three months ago she told the Chugiak-Eagle River Star that her position was evolving. She hinted then that her sons weren’t opposed to same sex marriages and now admits that their generation has significantly influenced her reconsideration.

In an Empire column Murkowski clearly and concisely articulated how, as a member of the Catholic faith, her decision still respects both our individual liberties and the freedom to follow our personal religious beliefs. Although she firmly backs the Catholic interpretation that marriage “is sacrament that exists exclusively between a man and a woman,” she proffered no definitive understanding of its true meaning. Instead she accepted that people of other faiths and belief systems have the right to define it differently that her church does.

This stands in stark contrast to the reaction by United States Conference of Catholic Bishops immediately following the Supreme Court’s rulings. In their press release they called both decisions a “profound injustice to the American people.” The bishops went so far as to say that “the preservation of liberty and justice requires that all laws … respect the truth, including the truth about marriage” as they define it – “the union of one man and one woman.”

While the Catholic Church may be the largest religious denomination America, the fact is it represents only a quarter of the population. And that’s a generous figure when you factor in that less than a quarter of Catholic adults regularly attend Sunday services. So clearly the bishops aren’t speaking for all Americans?

But it’s the comparison between their views and Sen. Murkowski’s which should remind us that the First Amendment to the Constitution – “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” – is meant to prevent religious institutions from burdening all people with their rigid doctrines. While they have every right to hold onto and preach their ideals about marriage and other beliefs, no church has a monopoly on the truth, divine or otherwise.

Murkowski’s evolution exemplifies how our individual truths are often matters of the heart molded more by profound experiences than the dogmas we were taught as youngsters, even if we’ve followed them throughout much of our adult lives. As she explained in her column, she discovered a new form of injustice after meeting a lesbian couple who had adopted four children. It didn’t alter her personal definition of marriage. But the manner in which it challenged her world views would, over the course of a year, lead her to a new understanding of the meaning of family and the power of love.

Although Murkowski is a politician, this certainly wasn’t a politically motivated pronouncement. Indeed, she’s quite brave to publicly expose such heartfelt sentiment that’s in direct opposition to her church, her party and to the majority of Alaskans who oppose same sex marriage. This is really a story about the journey of her conscience.

The consciences of young adults today are more likely to be guided by personal friendships with gay and lesbian classmates and co-workers than those of us of earlier generations who were raised when homosexuality hid behind the closet door. They’ll be more apt to trust the true life stories and struggles of their friends than edicts enumerated by a group of high ranking priests who have never experienced the sexual intimacy of a loving relationship.

America’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness evolved before to set aside differences in gender and race. The next generation will probably help us redefine them again to include everyone regardless of sexual preference.

Moniak is a Juneau resident.

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