Marriage: God’s Rules and Caesar’s

With the Supreme Court’s 2015 ruling legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, I have been unearthing some of my writings on the subject over the years, many of them emphasizing a common theme: the way some religious people confuse civil and religious institutions. I’ve previously posted on this website a 2009 blog on the subject. I now add this oped, syndicated by Pacific News Service in 2004, soon after San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom unilaterally ordered the city staff to issue marriage licenses without regard to gender, setting off a brief, celebratory period during which the city was issuing marriage licenses as the Supreme Court acknowledged 11 years later is constitutionally required.


White House press secretary Scott McClellan said it exactly right when he told the media that President Bush “has always strongly believed that marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman.”

Behind the exhilaration of the recent San Francisco gay marriages — or the angst, depending on your viewpoint — lie a few deceptively simple words that we have hopelessly confused. The easiest way to come to terms with the national tempest over gay marriages is to place those few words under a microscope for a moment.The operative words in the White House statement are “sacred” and “believed.” McClellan’s announcement accurately summarizes the president’s religious view that marriage between a man and a woman is a sacred institution, not a governmental one. But what Mr. Bush is proposing is the

President Bush “has always strongly believed that marriage is a sacred institution”

inclusion in the United States Constitution, the ruling document of our secular government, of his personal “beliefs” on what is “sacred.”

Mr. Bush, said to be a deeply religious man who felt a “calling from God” to run for the presidency, is welcome to his beliefs, however exclusionary I may feel they are; but they are between him and his god. They are not part of the contract with the American people that he has pledged to uphold. The president would substitute his personal belief system for the equal protection of all citizens in our diverse nation that has been a cornerstone of our constitutional guarantees for centuries.

That word “sacred” is surely a key to the heart-wrenching political debate in this country over gay marriage; let’s recognize it for what it is — a component of religious belief and therefore laden with emotional import. However, it has nothing to do with the affairs of state except in theocracies.

There is another word whose use and misuse has been equally troubling: the word “marriage” itself.

We have unwittingly combined two institutions under a common name. There is, first, the “marriage” for which one gets a license from the government. The license entitles one to many benefits and responsibilities — corporate, governmental, contractual and otherwise. The absence of such a document can carry civil penalties — in taxation, in court, and in many nongovernmental realms.

Whether governments decide to permit the license to be witnessed or countersigned by a civil official or a religious figure, whether it is used as part of a religious ceremony or not, that convenience does not change the nature of the civil contract itself. The issuance of that license, that municipal document with such important ramifications, was at the center of the action taken dramatically by San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s simple directive to his staff.

All races and sexes are entitled under our current Constitution to the full benefits and responsibilities of a “marriage license.” That includes use of the word “marriage,” not a “separate but equal” designation such as “civil unions.”

There is another use of the word “marriage,” however. It is the “marriage made in heaven” — generally consecrated in churches and synagogues and temples. It is a religious act. Most religions have elected to use the government’s

We have unwittingly combined two institutions under a common name.

license as a precondition or part of their rites, but the two are not the same. In a country dedicated to separation of church and state, religions are welcome to use governmental documents such as licenses for their own purposes, but they have no right to insist that we adopt their beliefs or institutions — or their definition of what constitutes “marriage.”

Some religions — or factions of their adherents — have strong views on the meaning and nature of marriage. Some believe that marriage ought to be between a man and a woman; others that it is an institution open to one man and several women; still others that it is open only to adherents of the same religion or race or caste. Except to protect women, children and especially vulnerable people from physical or emotional exploitation, the state has no right to tamper with such purely religious views, as long as they remain purely religious. However benighted and heartless I may consider it, churches may, if they wish, call only man-woman couples “married in the eyes of God.”

For far too many years in our nation’s often ignoble history, those with strong religious or quasi-religious beliefs managed to persuade American governments to deny the secular institution of marriage to people of different races. We have finally come to recognize the horrible historical error of those laws against miscegenation. They have been ruled illegal under the Constitution, and our nation has been enriched immeasurably by the correction of that long-held error.

Now, the president and others are asking us not simply to practice discrimination against a significant class of our citizens; they are asking that we write their “sacred” belief in such discrimination into our most basic charter, which is dedicated to elimination of inequality, not promotion of it.

The president is entitled to believe whatever he wishes in his heart, but we have no more right as citizens of this pluralistic democracy to write “except gays” into the U.S. Constitution than we do “except colored folks.”



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