Religion has no place in same-sex marriage debate

Newly-wed couples leave the courthouse on the first day of same-sex marriage in Washington State. The issue remains a major wedge within both U.S. and Canadian politics. But do arguments from the religious right have any place in this heated debate?

The strangest thing happens when you bring up the idea of gay marriage. Straight people start complaining about how it effects them. I have always struggled to understand how same-sex marriage could undermine my own marriage. Am I being asked to participate?

Of course, it’s not all straight people. It tends to be a few loud voices, usually arguing on the back of some religious idea. Now, I don’t want to impugn anyone’s right to religious freedom. You can believe whatever you want. But it’s about time somebody asked an important question: are religious arguments relevant to the debate over same-sex marriage?

By my estimation, the answer is a solid “no.”

To see this, we need to take a look at what it is that the word “marriage” describes. I’m willing to grant that the institution of marriage has its beginnings in religious practice. But so do a lot of things. Over time, many such things branch out and grow away from the church and its moral code. This is exactly what has happened with marriage.

Of course, there is still a sense in which marriage is a religious institution. Any wedding performed in a church is sanctioned by that church, officiated by its priest, and packed with religious content. This is clearly a religious ceremony. So, in this sense, “marriage” describes a religious arrangement.

At the same time, we have another sense of “marriage” which has nothing to do with religion. Rather, it has a legal definition. My wedding was performed by a marriage commissioner, did not happen in a place of worship, and had absolutely no religious or spiritual content whatsoever. It was a heathen wedding, through and through. And it was great.

My marriage exists purely in the secular sense of the word. This legal sense of the word “marriage” refers to the joining of two people under the law, such that they legally become members of the same family, acquire all of the legal rights of spouses, and stuff like that. Because this is something defined by Canadian law, and thus by the Canadian government, it can’t have any religious content. This sense of “marriage” describes a legal arrangement.

So, in other words, we actually have two different kinds of institution going by the name of “marriage.” One is a religious institution, the other legal. The trick is that we typically recognize religious marriages as valid in the legal sense. So when you get married in a church, you are simultaneously married in both the legal and the religious sense, whereas someone like me is married only in the legal sense.

If you’re with me so far, here’s the point.

In general, the same-sex marriage lobby wants to expand the legal definition of marriage, not the religious one. And on that legal question, religion simply has nothing to contribute. How could the church have anything relevant to say on a point of law? It is not a question about religion, about any religious practice, or about any religious tradition. It is a question of rights. It is about recognizing, under the law, a commitment between two consenting adults to love, support, and annoy each other forever.

The result is that faith-based arguments against same-sex marriage are actually off topic. If you want to argue against same-sex marriage, you need to present a secular argument, not one rooted in your religious beliefs, as they have nothing to do with this conversation.

The good news, for all you religious folks, is that none of this is threatening religious marriage. The law cannot touch that any more than it can touch your religion. Hence, your faith and values are not actually threatened by gay marriage. In fact, they never were.

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