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Same-Sex Marriage Is Not a Matter for Ballots

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"I don't get to vote on your marriage. How come you get to vote on mine?"

With that simple question to the Iowa State Legislature, a gay man recently laid bare the fundamental wrongheadedness of all the laws and referendums aimed at either permitting or forbidding same-sex marriage. Such a pursuit of happiness is a right, not a privilege subject to the approval of voters -- something that Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont is addressing right now with hearings to repeal the pernicious "Defense of Marriage Act" designed to obstruct same-sex marriage.

The wrongheadedness of both the prejudice and the failure to recognize such a right has not been self-evident forever, of course. When I was a teenager in the '50s, I freely joined my peers in denigrating "queers" and "homos" and had no qualms about using the word "nigger" either -- to my everlasting shame and regret and astonishment. Astonishment, because my parents were as devoted to civil liberties as any two people could possibly be in their generation. They abhorred any and all prejudices and strove consistently to wipe them out.

But their sons proved perfectly capable of ignoring such models, preferring to flow along with their peers until creeping maturation realigned us to our parents' stance. My own evolution has progressed through a pronounced series of stages, from teenage peer-compliance, to admiration for my parents' understanding, to the influences of seminary, to the testing of my convictions when confronted by parishioners' negative reaction to my support for gays and lesbians.

To enhance my evolution beyond peer-prescribed prejudices, I had a case study to witness firsthand. At the time I entered San Francisco Theological Seminary (SFTS) in San Anselmo in 1962, my mother was leading a highly effective campaign right across the Golden Gate bridge to help the San Francisco gay community forge itself into a formidable political force, one which has controlled the balance of power in that city ever since and made it the most gay-friendly environment in America.

My years at SFTS only deepened my commitment to freeing both the victims and the perpetrators of prejudice from the damage it inflicts on both parties' humanity. Theodore Gill, then the visionary president of SFTS, was relentlessly outspoken in his view that Jesus demonstrated a radical inclusiveness that was utterly incompatible with drawing any lines of distinction between the value of one human being and another. Gill was a civil libertarian who found inspiration for his even-handedness and love of personal freedom in the life of Jesus even while propounding a surprisingly traditional, creed-friendly view of Christian theological foundations.

I had chosen SFTS, with its strong psychology department, in order to pursue my interest in the roots of theological formulations. In particular, I wanted to understand what human experiences had given rise to various specific images and concepts of God, and to trace how those experiences may or may not have remained vivid and valid over time. Clearly, many of the innumerable biblical laws concerning food, for example, were highly practical ways of protecting a desert people from the dangers posed in an era before refrigeration. How many other restrictions that were attributed to a caring God had been rendered moot by the evolution of both science and human understanding?

Many such originally well-intended guidelines, customs and commandments were obviously irrelevant, but the more I studied the evolution of changing beliefs in the church, the ones that were proving to be most resistant to de facto abandonment by the faithful seemed to be those that judged some human beings as unacceptable on the face of it. Confronted with a choice between following Jesus' inclusive behavior versus honoring a half-truth like "Birds of a feather flock together," generation upon generation seemed more comfortable with the latter. Many are happier, apparently, when there is someone else with whom they can contrast themselves, to the detriment of the other.

I began to muse about what many may consider the most radical question of all: What if Jesus himself was gay? Certainly there is little or perhaps nothing in Scripture that would indicate that he was. But neither is there a scintilla of Scripture that would suggest he was actively heterosexual. And if he was, well, sort of asexual, floating about with a kind of Sallman's "Head of Christ" above-it-all demeanor, reflecting serene disdain for the whole sexual enterprise, that wouldn't be too encouraging for the rest of us human beings looking for a guide to God who really, truly, fully shared our human condition.

But I found myself even more interested in the follow-on question: If by some happenstance it turns out that Jesus was gay -- if there were definitive evidence of this -- then would he, could he, still be the Christ for those people who presume that their Christ is heterosexual or asexual? Or would they feel compelled to retroactively disown whatever blessings they had experienced from that Christ before his orientation was known?

This didn't turn out to be a popular topic of discussion among the parishioners I served, but then I didn't expect it to be and didn't push it. Many are content to seal off any discussion of gay matters with a simple declaration that God has abjured it as "an abomination." This declaration (as is so often the case in religious matters) comes most forcefully from those with the least expertise in the matter, in this case betraying their ignorance of the fact that God nowhere in Scripture expresses an opinion about this, and the oft-cited reference to "abomination" refers to certain tribal customs and preferences, not divine judgment.

But the possibility of Jesus' being gay has energized my commitment to bringing about equality for all those whose sexual orientation -- I would say their God-given sexual orientation -- is different from mine and most people's. I like to entertain the idea that Jesus was gay and that he is, in some particularly profound way, the patron saint of our gay contemporaries who still suffer from others' prejudices.

In the same way, I would regard Jesus as the patron saint of those who are imprisoned by their own prejudices and find it difficult to free themselves from inflicting odious judgments on others. Alas, admiring Jesus has always proven infinitely easier than following him, for all of us.

Of course the irony of any theological discussion of same-sex marriage is that it is not a matter in which religious bodies and voices have any formal standing whatsoever. The state of marriage is made possible only by the permission of civil authorities, marriages can be performed by all manner of non-religious persons, and when clergy choose to be involved in such ceremonies, they do so explicitly as agents of those civil authorities, signing a marriage certificate authorized, issued and memorialized by a civil authority.

And that is precisely why we must reject the idea of voting on the issue of same-sex marriage. Voting is for communal preferences -- candidates, propositions, rates of taxation or zoning codes -- not for civil rights. On such matters of preference, majority rules. When a majority prefers one approach, it becomes law -- until another majority later decides it prefers something else and votes in a different law to replace it.

By contrast, we should never be voting on fundamental rights. Rights are permanent and cannot be retracted by the preferences expressed in a majority vote. Rights are declared in constitutions, and rights are to be protected by judicial decisions, not popular votes.

Some protest that permitting same-sex marriage would change the definition of marriage. You bet it would! And not a moment too soon. We changed the definition of "citizen" when blacks became recognized. We changed the definition of "voter" when women's suffrage came about. And we changed the definition of "member" when social clubs stopped excluding Jews. Some institutions sorely need to be changed, and marriage is right up at the top of the list, currently staggering along at a 50 percent failure rate among heterosexual couples. If nothing else, same-sex couples will almost certainly improve our national success rate.

So, on the one hand, it might seem admirable that voters in a number of states have declared same-sex marriage legal within their bounds, even while other states are rejecting the same proposition. But we shouldn't be voting on this at all. The very fact of the voting reveals the laxity, perfidy or cowardice of the courts who have defaulted the decision to the legislative process.

In the last analysis, however, the issue, while intrinsically one of rights, is about compassion and humility. Since when does any person -- an elected legislator considering a bill or a citizen voting in a state referendum -- get to decide which people may pursue their happiness and which may not? Since when does anyone get to grant or withhold happiness from another whose happiness is innocent of any adverse effect on others?

No one among us has, and no one should have, the power to deny another human being the same freedom we pursue and claim for ourselves. To believe otherwise is to poison our personal integrity and our society. When leaders in other nations have believed they had the right to inflict such pain on minorities (think: Hitler), it required all-out war with them to reverse their practices.

Fortunately, we Americans have a history of transforming ourselves from within, gradually disabusing ourselves of certain prejudices and eventually ending the pain caused by our egregious deprivation of minority rights. Well, enough already with the gradual and eventual. It is time to end the pain of withholding marriage from same sex couples right this instant. We can do our part by supporting Senator Leahy's hearings to repeal the odious Defense of Marriage Act and then encouraging the courts to do their job by regarding and defending same-sex marriage as a right.

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