Empire Editorial: Facing gay marriage issue on two fronts

Posted: Sunday, April 18, 2004

The movement that's shaking up the nation hit Juneau this week. Two women tried to get married. To each other. Karen Wood and Darla Madden left for San Francisco to tie the knot. However they were unable to get a marriage license because of a recent California court ruling. They found this out before leaving Southeast, but went anyway. Not just because their friends had already thrown them a reception, complete with bubbly, but because they wanted to be a part of the movement pushing for legal marriages for same-sex couples.

Courts across the country are grappling with this issue. Churches are debating - even fighting furiously - over what rights, if any, should be given to gays. The topic has become so prominent that even President Bush has called for changing the U.S. Constitution so that only a man and a woman can marry. Similarly, a number of states are debating constitutional amendments to prevent gay unions.

The issue of same-sex marriages is being fought on two important fronts because there are two very different types of marriage: legal marriage and holy matrimony. One involves the unromantic piece of paper that entitles spouses to a division of property upon divorce. The second is that esoteric, but most profound of unions, couched in many layers of emotion, spiritual beliefs and social customs. The first involves the courts and the law. The second involves a church, synagogue or other spiritual belief system.

The problem is that people are getting the two types of marriage terribly mixed up. In the debate on gay marriages, people are confusing the role of the government and the church. People are speaking out against gay marriage because it does not fit into their morals and values. But overseeing morality is the role of churches and religious institutions, not the duty of the government and court system. Instead, our laws are designed to protect rights, despite individual belief systems.

Take for instance interracial marriage, which many people in this country find morally repugnant. But interracial marriage is protected under the law, which grants the same rights of union to consenting adults, regardless of race. The same right should be granted to people regardless of sexual preference as well. Why? Because American law is built on the ideal of treating people equally and protecting even those who do not hold the belief systems of the majority.

Some gays want to be able to legally marry because they want public sanctioning of the relationships that are central to their lives. But they too are getting confused about what the law is about.

The real reason gay marriages should be made legal is because until they are, gays do not have the same legal rights that heterosexuals do. Take, for instance, two lesbians who have been devoted to each other for 30 years. One is suddenly injured in a car accident and is dying in an intensive care unit. But her partner cannot see her on her death bed because only kin are allowed onto the ward. Particularly when family members are hostile to the gay partner, that person could be shut out when her loved one needs her most. Similarly, a gay couple could share a home for years. But if one of them dies unexpectedly and the survivor's name is not on the title to the house, the other could lose his home to the family of his partner, with no legal recourse.

Those who oppose gay marriage should think closely - and clearly - about why they do. How often is it because of deeply held religious beliefs? If their spiritual beliefs are behind their opposition to gay unions, then they should act on those convictions within their churches, synagogues or mosques. Every spiritual institution has the right, if not the duty, to establish rules for holy matrimony within the belief systems of their members.

But opponents of same-sex marriage should not let their religious beliefs blur their judgment on what is legally fair. That unromantic marriage license is the key to numerous legal rights, which should be the same for all people, regardless of race, gender or sexual preference. People such as Karen Wood and Darla Madden should be commended - not silenced - for trying to spur changes in the American legal system so that at last all couples can have equal rights in this country.

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