In the last presidential campaign, conservative interviewers routinely asked candidates to “define ‘marriage’.” They were not looking for a definition of a word. That would have been made evident if one of the candidates had asked for a dictionary. They were, rather, masking their real intent, which was to determine whether the candidate was willing to restrict civil rights accorded to those who are married to unions of one man and one woman. So they were really asking whether the government should refuse to allow tax advantages and hospital visitation rights and other such benefits to any couple other than a heterosexual couple. Why these interviewers would not state their intent directly is a valid question. Perhaps it is much more appealing to the public to hide the fact that the interviewers and their supporters wanted to institutionalize discrimination against gays and lesbians. Perhaps they were just trying to be clever. Whatever their motive, they were most certainly not wanting legislation about a dictionary definition. One can only imagine the fun we would have with the legislature if we gave it the task of defining words. It would, I suppose, be a punishable act to refer to mayonnaise as a marriage of eggs and oil.
Clearly, then, all this clamor was not about defining words. Sadly, however, many true believers in whatever set of doctrines were deceived into thinking that it was about a definition, not, however, a definition provided by a legislature but rather a definition provided by a religion. The Archbishop of Milwaukee, for instance, was quoted as saying that the ruling was “a sad day for the sacrament of marriage.” We should, perhaps, forgive the archbishop for his apparent ignorance of the differnece between a religious statement and a legal statement. The court’s ruling in no way affects the Roman Catholic Church’s refusal to grant sacramental status to the marriage of same-sex couples. The Roman Catholic Church remains fully within its right to restrict access to its rituals to gays or lesbians or, for that matter, to any other category of humans against which it feels required to discriminate. So, for instance, it can continue to refuse to deny the sacrament of holy orders, priesthood, to all women simply because they are women. The laws of the United States allow for all of the peculiarities of the various religious cults, unless they interfere with the civil rights of others.
There lies the rub, and there lies one of the truly scary tendencies of some of the comments of those who oppose granting civil marital status to gays and lesbians. What these people are actually trying to do is to institutionalize their relgiious beliefs. Whether intentionally or not, they ignore the distinction between religion and government. They blur the line, or rather they attempt to erase the line, between the rules of government and the rituals of institutional religions. They threaten the very nature of governance in the United States. They pervert the United States’ commitment to the freedom of religion into an institutionalization of their own particular religion. One individual, a noted preacher, even had the nerve to state in public that the freedom of religion in America extended only to the “Christian” religion. One can only assume that, by the word “Christian”, he meant his peculiar version of that religion. Whatever he meant by his words, the inevitable effect of his view would be to destroy the American ideal and, as the consequence, the American way of governance. If such as he had their way, that would be a truly sad day.
The real effect, therefore, of the Supreme Court’s decision on marriage is precisely the opposite of what the opposing factions are decrying. Far from being a sad day for any ritual or any religious belief, it is a ratification of the right of all people to live their lives in accordance with their beliefs and their personal orientations, subject only to the fundamental American requirement that they allow all others that very same right. We hold these truths to be self-evident. We cannot conceive of a world without those rights. We have, no doubt, a long way to go, but at least we have not left the path.