The priest holds his nose through the ceremony

Paul Hogarth liveblogs Day 3 of the Prop 8 trial:

Chauncey: “There’s a growing debate [in religions], but most religious groups are not with us.”

Since they’ve mentioned the relationship of religion with gay marriage, I’m going to run off on a wild tangent and give my thoughts on this.

This will take some time to unpack; where to start?

There appear to be three major categories of objection to marriage equality: children, religion, and definition. I’ve already given my thoughts on marriage equality and children, so today I’ll go into religion.

  • Marriage as Religious Institution

By this, I mean the allegation that marriage is defined and sanctioned by religious groups, and the state should not presume to tell the churches what marriage means. The reality is more the other way around. As it is practiced in the U.S., marriage is above all a legal institution, defined by law and regulated by courts and judges. Marriage occupies a unique place in the relationship between church and state in that clergy are allowed to officiate at weddings, but what power gives them that authority? The state. The legal reality of a marriage comes not from the ceremony performed at a house of worship, but from a marriage license filed with the court. Religious leaders can and do perform wedding ceremonies for couples that cannot legally marry, and when a married couple wants to divorce, it is the court system, and not the church, that dissolves their marriage.

Furthermore, do you think all married people are religious, or even that they were all married in religious ceremonies? A religious ceremony is entirely optional for a legal marriage; many couples go straight to the court for a secular marriage. This is the civil right that gay and lesbian couples are asking to be extended to them.

  • Religious Liberty

Then we have the oft-repeated, but never-defended warning that marriage equality would mean that clergy would be forced to officiate same-sex wedding ceremonies against their beliefs, or be punished for refusing to do so.

Aside from the fact that there is absolutely no sign of any such consequence due to legalizing civil marriage for same-sex couples, here is a question that I haven’t seen anyone else raise:

“Why would any couple want to do that?”

Seriously: why would any couple want to force a religious leader to consecrate their marriage? Why would anyone want to be married by a clergyman who doesn’t approve of the union? What kind of a joyous occasion would that be? “And by the power vested in me…*sigh*…by the state of New Idiocy, I now pronounce you *holds nose*…um…spouses for life! Now someone get me a drink.” The fact is that same-sex couples are far from the first set of people to offend religious sensibilities. Many heterosexual couples already have to “shop around” for a religious leader willing to officiate their weddings: interfaith couples and people who are already divorced, for example, often have to ask around, and they can do that, because all religions do not have the same restrictions on valid marriage. Which brings us to my final point…

  • Religious Acceptance of Same-Sex Marriage

Finally, while “religious liberty” is still used as a cudgel against the threat of equality in marriage law, not all groups define liberty in the same way. Some denominations DO accept same-sex marriage, and some individual congregations and leaders are more accepting than others. Many ordained clergy would be perfectly happy to officiate gay and lesbian weddings; it’s the laws keeping them from doing so. (It’s that “marriage as legal institution” thing again.) When marriage equality opponents talk about “religious liberty,” what they really mean is the privilege of legislating their religious beliefs and prejudices into law for everyone regardless of affiliation. I’m afraid the First Amendment does not work that way.

Am I the only person who notices that “religious liberty” is treated as so much more important than civil rights? Supporters of marriage equality practically tie themselves in knots to assure people of homophobic faiths that we’re not going to interfere with their right to discriminate, and why? Opponents of equality have nothing to offer in terms of supporting the legal security and stability of same-sex couples and their families. Perhaps this is because there is no substitute for the legal benefits of civil marriage, which is not dependent on religious approval.