10/15/2012 11:11 am ET Updated Dec 15, 2012

Redefine Marriage? Well, Certainly!


When the framers of our Constitution defined "voter," here is what they prescribed: white male property owners.

Oops. Guess that leaves out a lot of the people you know and love, right?

So over time, we wised up as a country and began to evolve that definition. It took a couple of hundred years. And there were some bumps in the road, as when a backward-looking Supreme Court ruled that blacks -- even free blacks -- couldn't be citizens and therefore couldn't vote (Dred Scott v. Sandford). So we as a nation passed the Fourteenth Amendment (1868) to correct that little citizenship glitch.

But we still had to pass the Fifteenth Amendment shortly thereafter (1870) to give adult black men and adult men of any race the right to vote.

But (oops again), what about women? The white ones. The property-owing ones. The civic leaders. Any and every woman. How about them? Sorry. Got the wrong kind of plumbing, ladies. You just leave the decisions to us gents, okay? And so the country did, for the next 50 years. Only after the heroic Suffragettes who wouldn't take "no" for an answer finally got the country to pass the Nineteenth Amendment (1920) did the other half of the adults in the United States of America possess the right to vote.

See a pattern emerging here, anybody? It's called progress. It's called enlightenment. It's called doing the right thing. It's called change.

We should be enormously proud of the fact that we as a nation have refused to let ourselves or our neighbors be perpetually hamstrung by the inadequate definitions of earlier generations. But it's a never-ending challenge. Even a hundred years after the Emancipation Proclamation and the slavery-ending Thirteenth Amendment, many of us grew up in towns where Jim Crow laws still denied blacks access to decent education and jobs and freedom of movement. We grew up with rampant discrimination against Jews who were denied membership in our country clubs and welcome to other realms of society. We lived these dreadful corruptions ourselves. We witnessed firsthand -- sometimes supporting, sometimes resisting -- the painful processes by which these ugly patterns are gradually rectified.

This much is true beyond argument: Without our continually evolving our Constitution and laws and social patterns to assure all our citizens the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness--and a say-so in the affairs of our nation -- we would have no right to hold our nation up as a model for our own children, let alone the rest of the world.

And so having evolved the definition of "voter" and "citizen" and "member," we now must step up to the next necessary redefinition on our national agenda: marriage. This opportunity is now before voters in Maine, Washington, Maryland, and Minnesota.

I should note here that I am an ordained clergyperson in a major denomination. I have officiated at numerous weddings. And I cherish the traditions of my own church as well as honor and respect those of others whose religious traditions differ from my own. I do not play fast and loose with such matters.

But my own religious experiences and persuasions are totally irrelevant to how marriage is defined by civil authorities. Why? Because whenever a clergyperson officiates at a wedding, she or he does so as an agent of the state. Let me repeat that: when officiating at a wedding, a clergyperson is acting as an agent of a governmental authority that issued a governmental license authorizing that ceremony and certifying that the couple involved thereinafter enjoys all the rights and privileges attendant thereto. No license, no marriage. Got it?

So, if I don't feel like officiating at the marriage of a same-sex couple, that's fine. Nobody can force me to perform that ceremony against my will or beliefs. But by the same token, I have no right to state that my own religious convictions should obstruct the pursuit of happiness by a same-sex couple.

And so it is up to us as voting citizens of our civil society, dedicated to freedom for all, to continue the work of prior generations who outgrew and swept away the shackles of the past. We can now leave our own mark on America's proud history of revising old traditions and definitions that, upon reconsideration, are recognized as cruel restrictions on our neighbors and friends -- traditions and definitions that, if left in place, might even force certain of our own family members to miss out on life's most precious experiences.

I hear their very reasonable plea: Just let me marry the person I love, okay?

And I say, Yes.