Marriage rights and religious discrimination

Now, I’m no lawyer, but I have some thoughts,  Any lawyers who come upon this are free to slice and dice the argument as they like.  This will, of course, be a brief sketch of the idea, not a comprehensive argument.

Marriage and family

Now, those who think about marriage rights in the United States, as well as many other Western nations, have had to deal with the question of gay marriage in recent years.  And while I know some atheists who oppose gay marriage, it is my opinion that their opposition to such things are ultimately based upon cultural values and traditions which are carried to us on the back of religious doctrines and tradition.  That is, while homophobia, discrimination, etc are natural human phenomena which are merely magnified and perpetuated by the many kinds of religious institutions, it is primarily religion that is the social basis for opposition to equal marriage rights.  There simply is no coherent argument against gay marriage.  Religious arguments, while still not coherent when seen from the outside, are at least more internally consistent.

The so-called definition of marriage is deeply problematic, and not challenged often enough.  The idea that it is only marriage when institutions, both civil and religious, wed one man and one woman, is not particularly traditional or universal.  The history of marriage, which is too complicated to summarize effectively here, is one based upon property relationships.  Contained within but also found outside of the traditional religious scriptures of many faiths is the idea that a wife is property, and the idea that marriage is a union of two people whom love one-another and both enter into willingly is a relatively modern idea.  The idea of the nuclear family, with (stay-at-home) mother, (bread-winning) father, and children (and possibly grandma or an uncle or aunt being around) is an idealized picture that is not more than a hundred years old.  Sure, families may have looked that way previous to that, but it was not the definition of family until more recently.

The bottom line is the traditionally conservative definition of marriage, and therefore of family, is not actually traditional.  It is a conservative notion, for sure, but it seeks to conserve an idea which is younger than the airplane or the automobile.  In a world that moves and thinks faster, where innovation is the bedrock of many economies, it is absurd that we should expect cultural and personal ideas not to change.  Marriage has already changed from a hierarchical property relationship to one between consenting equals, and it will continue to change as we learn more about ourselves and what we are capable of.

But change into what? Into whatever consenting, mature, and responsible adults want it to change into.  We are, after all, the arbiters of our own culture.  We bow to no universal definitions or standards.  Or, at least, we shouldn’t.

Religious discrimination

Descrimination is not allowed under the law in Western “Democracies” (I’m not getting into that today…).  In the United States, Title VII protects people from “discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” and many other nations have similar types of laws.  Now, this may not seem like a way to argue about marriage (and perhaps it is not, ultimately) but allow me to present an argument. Similar or very different arguments might have to be levied in the legal whirlwind of other nations, but I’m an American, so I’ll pretend no other places exist for a little while, as is our way.

Let’s say, hypothetically, that a religious institution would start marrying homosexuals in the United States.  And, let’s say, this church wanted to do so throughout the united states, even in states that don’t recognize or allow gay marriage.  And, let’s say, the church proclaims that this act is part of their religious doctrine.  Now, despite the fact that Christian, Jewish, Mormon, and Islamic texts say otherwise, there are other religious institutions that could, hypothetically, do so without this contradiction.  Hindus, for example (As far as I can remember) don’t have the same problem with homosexuality. And what about the Shinto? Ah, how we always forget about them, don’t we?  But it does not matter what religious group steps forward to do this, because the first amendment protects all religious views.

Wouldn’t these acts and doctrines, by whatever religious group that decides to act in such a way,  be a challenge to the state not recognizing gay marriage?  In the face of such an act, the state and/or federal government not allowing these marriages to be recognized equally with a Catholic, Jewish, or Hindu marriage seems to be religious discrimination issue.  Would a religious institution who had, as part of their beliefs, the idea that anyone should be free to marry anyone, be discriminated against if they tried to do so?

Now, I know how I would respond to this.  I would say that there is a distinction between what a church does within it’s doors and what the state is compelled to recognize.  That is, the Temple of Holy Perversity can marry Adam and Steve, Lilith and Eve, or (perhaps) Adam, Steve and Eve, but that does not compel the state to recognize this union legally, with all the rights and privileges that come with it.  That is, the marriage could be a religious one, but not a civil one.  A person who took this road might argue, as some do, that marriage is a religious institution and whatever legal rights “married” people get now is really a civil union we call ‘marriage’ for the sake of simplicity and tradition.  They might argue that the state should only recognize civil unions, and not any marriage that a religion can conceive of.  Many people seem to be moving in this direction, although it contains seeds of further problems associated with discrimination.

Why, for example, should the government recognize the civil union of Billy and Barbara while rejecting Bobby and Mike?  On what basis does it accept one type of civil union and not another? Tradition? Is this traditional distinction not based upon a biased practiced which has been perpetuated by religious bigotry and centuries of  discrimination against homosexuality?  Would accepting this traditional idea, carried to us by religion, not a way to respect one set of religious traditions over ones that might not accept those traditions? In short, isn’t the civil union compromise merely a way to shovel off the question of discrimination and religious preferential treatment one step further down the line?

It also seems to me (and my legal understanding of the issue gets fuzzy here) that the term “marriage” not only is not a mere religious term (because religion has usurped the idea, much like it has done to morality), but that to allow one type of union between people to have automatic civil rights and benefits while denying it to others seems to be an inequality that is not only unfair, but possibly illegal.  For the states or the federal government to recognize one type of union while not another, especially if where that line lays just [sarcasm]happens [/sarcasm] to overwhelmingly coincide with the lines between religious opinions in our culture, seems a little like discrimination based upon religion to me.

I’m going to start my own religion

Now, since it is unlikely that any established church or religious institution is going to take this step, even though many specific congregations are in favor of gay marriage, we might have to start our own.  And of course, since I’m an atheist, it might not be me.  Or maybe not.  Humanism, for example, is recognized as a religion, legally, according to some precedent.  And while many atheists, including myself, are not particularly comfortable with having atheism recognized as a religion (because it’s not a religion), I will admit that in the legal sense there is meaning to talking about it as if it were.  This is not a double-standard, because the point of the law against discrimination, as I understand it, is to protect people from discrimination based on whatever religious position they take, not what religion they adhere to.  So while atheism is not a religion, it is protected in the same way as any religion would be.

So, could Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism, or any sect thereof be the group that takes this step? Sure.  And if this group starts performing ceremonies which marry two men, two women, or groups of people and these people who have all decided, as adults of their own free will, to enter into this arrangement, then does the state have to recognize it?  Perhaps not, but what happens when these people start losing their jobs as a result of it.  Can’t they point to their religious group, who not only blessed the union but performed it as part of their religious beliefs, and say that there are being discriminated based upon their religion?

And couldn’t they also point to the traditional religious groups, point to the fact that those who attend and marry in those mainstream places of worship don’t face this discrimination, and say that’s not fair! That’s discrimination! and be right?

Not only morally, but legally?

That’s my question.

It is a question that has implications for not only gay marriage, but polyamorous marriage.  And while much of the LGBTQ community does not want to address the larger polyamory issue when it comes to marriage (a political decision, of course), I believe that it is a question that my generation will see come to more public exposure in my lifetime.  Will we solve it? Well, these things change slowly, but if the polyamory community can get itself into the public sphere the way atheists did over the last 10 years, we might be able to make some headway.

There is a lot of work to be done.

Don’t say “polyamory”

So, yesterday I went to New York to do some upstart talk show by a former Catholic (and present Episcopalian) priest called Father Albert.  While we were prepping to go into the studio, the production staff, after asking many questions, interviewing us, and making a video introduction for the show, coached us to not use the word “polyamory” while on camera or in studio.  They wanted us to use the more commonly accepted term of “open relationship.”

Now, I understand their reasons.  For one, they had a guest who was formerly the 6th wife of a FLDS polygamist (who ended up having 10 wives), and people don’t understand (nor would they likely hear) a difference between the words polyamory and polygamy.  If we are being strictly technical, polygamy can be a sub-set of polyamory, except in most polygamist situations their is little to no love going around.  To distinguish between what Ginny and I are doing and what that women experienced in the environment of a talk show would be a herculean task.  The more general reason is that the term simply is not known widely enough to not be distracting from talking about what are relationship is like.

This is somewhat frustrating from the point of view of someone who is trying to educate people about responsible non-monogamy.  I agreed to not use the term because I realized that my time on the show would be short, and that I would likely be facing some hostility to the nature of my relationship with Ginny from an audience that is more likely to be conservative in their views about sex and relationships.  And that turned out to be a safe assumption, as they were pretty unfriendly to us in general.  I was glad to see one woman stand up and support us, even if she was likely the minority opinion there.

Father Albert himself, the host, was not supportive of us either.  He just didn’t get it, he said.  He talked about counseling couples towards a strong monogamous marriage, and that adding people to our relationship is only dangerous in terms of STDs (which is a real issue) and ultimately destructive to any real intimacy.  My retort was that we have rules of safety about safe sex, our intimacy is enhanced by true openness and honesty about everything, and also that fact that our relationship is constructive; “what can be more constructive than adding value and quality to our lives” (or something very similar to that).

Had we more time, I would have liked to make distinctions between polygamy of the kind that one of the other guests experienced and the polyamory–the loving, open, and honest relationship–that Ginny and I have.  The other people I have in my life that I am interested in pursuing some kind of romantic and/or sexual relationship (they are few, and I think they know who they are), are not being told that this is some divine command, they are not 15 years old, and I am not their superior.  We are equals; adults deciding to pursue relationships which mean something to us.

The bottom line, I think, is that our culture understands what monogamy is.  Even if it is serial monogamy, the idea is simple, feels comfortable, and is usually assumed by most of Americans.  Our culture is becoming more familiar with what polygamy is (at least in terms of the FLDS churches).  And even when they have a more positive model, say like in the show Big Love (which I have seen and like, to some extent), there are still problems such as the fact that it is always men with multiple women, and never the other way around.  Even when you have a Bill Henrickson who genuinely cares for his wives (Big Love), none of them are allowed other lovers.  This is an inequality borne of religious patriarchal thinking, not of genuine open-mindedness and desire to add love and joy to your life without social constraints which are ultimately based upon a relationship model borne out of a property relationship.  So, in our culture non-monogamy is probably associated with male domination of women, even if we can point out the occasional (even if only sometimes fictional) loving counter-example of such.

Polyamory is about treating all adults as, well, adults.  It is about deciding how you want to live your life, with whom, and being open and honest about our desires.  We, as a culture, are so far from understanding the implications of this that a term like “polyamory” just does not have a mental category in which to sit for most people.  Yes, if I had been given a 20 minute segment on the show to talk about polyamory, define it, and give examples and have other people, women and men, talk about the freedom, care, and rewards of living such a life then at least some people would begin to see what it is all about.  But that is not what happened yesterday.

When he introduced us, it was in terms of “here is a man who may want to get married, but he will still want to date other women.”  And not “here are two people who are in love, are committed to each other, have a healthy relationship, and who may have other lovers, boyfriends, and girlfriends.”  The former is based upon tropes common to our culture, the latter is not.

That idea is just too far removed from talk-show America.  And just like the term atheist, which is getting more press and is becoming more accepted (slowly), polyamory is a term that many think we just can’t use right now.  But with time, effort, and some patience (but not too much patience) that will change.