Steve Ahlquist deserves major kudos for his efforts in helping to win marriage equality in Rhode Island. I’m proud to say that my daughter also played a part by working the phones prior to some key votes.
Steve’s recent blog post suggests that the Catholic Church (and other religious interests) gambled and lost by fighting to preserve the equivalency between state-sanctioned marriage and the traditional religious sacrament. He argues that the churches could have protected the meaning of “marriage” if they had advocated for a separation between the religious concept of marriage and the government concept of civil union. We could have had a civil-union system in which all couples enjoyed all of the legal benefits traditionally extended to married couples. If couples desired the “marriage” label, they would be free to have it bestowed upon them by their choice of clergy (or humanist celebrant), without any state involvement. Religious organizations would be free to extend or to limit sacramental marriage consistent with the tenets of their faiths.
When the issues of gay marriage and civil unions first rose to the forefront, I advocated for such a system, because I believed that the government had no business being in the marriage business. Very few agreed with me. The churches went for broke by fighting to preserve “marriage” as a state-supported sacramental rite. Advocates for equal rights became invested in the word “marriage”, and they are winning the day.
Not wanting to give up this valuable bit of confusion between church and state in our laws, conservative, anti-LGBTQ churches decided on an all or nothing strategy. They would fight for one meaning to the word marriage. The distinction between civil and religious marriage was collapsed. In defining the word marriage so precisely they gave up the opportunity to tease out two meanings, one secular and one religious. If, as those on the losing side of this battle proclaim, the word marriage is being redefined, it’s because they never really fought for the word.
Instead, they gambled with the word, betting that in the end the word would still mean what it had evolved over time to mean: a religious sacrament enshrined into law. If the word marriage really had such a high value, religious institutions should never have gambled with it. They should have moved to protect the word, by working to pull it out of the law books. Instead, they gambled and they lost.
Marriage from this day forward has a primary, firmly secular meaning that speaks to equality and a secondary, dare I say lesser, religious meaning that still potentially enshrines prejudice. Instead of fighting for a secular and fair society, religiously motivated marriage fundamentalists fought for theocracy and religious privilege.
The religious opposition feared that the extension of marriage to same-sex couples would change the nature of the institution. Steve Ahlquist agrees that the meaning of the term marriage has, indeed, changed. What else should a church expect when it seeks to have the state’s imprimatur on its sacraments?