My God Can Beat Up Your God

Boy, isn’t it great to see that religious persecution is alive and well in the good ol’ U.S. of A.? A New York D.A. has filed charges against two Unitarian Universalist ministers for performing same-sex weddings within their church (well, within the context of their church — the weddings were actually performed outdoors). Boy, sounds like an example of the same homophobic bigotry underlying the Constitutional amendment debate, right?

Well, not exactly. While there may be an element of far-right homophobia present here — I don’t know the D.A.’s specific motivations — in actuality, this is even scarier. This is the government saying, “Your religion cannot recognize any sort of union other than that prescribed by the state.” Which is, in turn, that prescribed by mainstream Christianity (and, admittedly, most — but not all — other religious groups).

In other words, my religion is better than your religion. And I’m gonna force you to change your religion to be like mine.

“Wait a minute,” you say (okay, maybe not, but bear with me here). “Isn’t this prosecution more about the ministers’ role as representatives of the state? Aren’t they being charged because they are legalizing those marriages?” To which I respond (boy, conversation really is much easier when you play both parts), “Um, that’s the state’s problem.”

The argument doesn’t hold up under logical scrutiny: If the state doesn’t want to recognize the unions, fine — don’t recognize them. If the state isn’t issuing government marriage licenses, then they’re not legally recognized anyway; if the state is issuing licenses — as is the case in New Paltz — then you can take issue with the licensing body (in this case the mayor). Or you can nullify those licenses.

If, on the other hand, you’ve written your state law so that any marriage performed by a legally ordained cleric is somehow legal, then you’ve written yourself into a quandary. But it’s not one that you can weasel out of by interfering in the functioning of the religious body itself.

I’ve performed two — legally recognized — weddings, one in Maryland and one in Arizona. In both cases, while my ministerial ordination was a factor in those marriages being recognized by the state, it was far from the only such requirement. In fact, the burden of legal recognition was more heavily skewed toward the licensing end of things. From a legal standpoint, I just signed the papers and sent ’em in. In contrast, I cannot perform legal weddings in, for example, Virginia or the District of Columbia, both of which require additional state certification in order to be granted the legal powers to perform legally recognized weddings. And I’m fine with that. Part of a marriage is a state-regulated contract, and while I wholeheartedly disagree with the restrictions against, say, same-sex marriages both governments impose, the state is perfectly justified in further regulating those that can legitimately endorse these contracts. Provided, of course, that those restrictions do not unreasonably discriminate against particular religious groups (which is another issue, and one that could be argued in both D.C. and Virginia).

What the state — any state — cannot do is say that I cannot perform weddings within my church. They may choose not to recognize them — requiring an additional state certification procedure, for example. But they have no right to say my religion cannot recognize them. I haven’t pursued any additional licensing, but I can say that I’d never sign any document that explicitly forbade me from performing same-sex marriages; any such requirement would be a patently unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state. Again, the state can say it won’t acknowledge them, but it cannot say I can’t perform them.

Of course, this brings up the whole issue of the so-called “civil disobedience” being practiced by the mayor of New Paltz, Jason West, as well as San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, among others. I am far from a legal scholar (though I play one on TV), but in at least the San Francisco case, calling it “civil disobedience” is pushing the definition a bit — my understanding is that Newsom’s legal team reached the determination that prohibiting same-sex marriages was, in fact, illegal under the California constitution. Now, he may be working on shaky legal ground (or even Bush-style “Here’s the conclusion, now find me the evidence” coercion), but as the California Supreme Court had not ruled on the issue, it was hardly a closed case. I haven’t read the California constitution — or the New York constitution — so I can’t argue the case on its merits. But so far, it would appear that both of these issues are resolving themselves within the court system — rationally in California’s case, less so in New York’s. And with this latest tactic, New York’s credibility — at least with regard to this particular D.A., Donald A. Williams — is dropping quite a few notches.

I’m reminded of a phrase I’ve heard repeatedly (though, thankfully, not recently), usually uttered by devout adherents of a particular religious group: “I’ll pray for you.” Oh, I’m not talking about the perfectly innocent good wishes for a speedy illness recovery or anything along those lines — while I may not believe that prayers will do me a whit of good, they won’t hurt either. Such sentiments are offered only in the sincere desire to offer whatever aid may be possible. No, I’m talking about the dogmatic insistence that my soul is on the fast track to hell, and your intervention may be the only thing that saves me from eternal damnation (yeah, I know, I’m a little shaky on the pronoun antecedents here, but it just sounds better this way).

In other words, my religion — or lack thereof — is wrong, and your religion is right.

It’s one thing to follow a particular religious belief because you believe it’s the best path toward personal achievement, enlightenment, “salvation,” what have you. And there’s nothing wrong with trying to convince others to join that belief (annoying, maybe, but not wrong). But when you start claiming that not only is your chosen path the best one, but it’s the only one, then I’m sorry, but I won’t be taking you the least bit seriously from here on out. Whether or not you realize it, you’re a religious bigot. The Middle East doesn’t have a monopoly on ’em.

You’re perfectly allowed to maintain your bigotry, and to express it. But don’t ever think the Constitution of the United States gives you the authority to impose that bigotry on the rest of us.

I take a great deal of comfort in the knowledge that, in twenty years or so, the anti-gay marriage crowd — or, more specifically, the anti-gay civil rights segment of that crowd — will be viewed in the same light as the segregationists of old. When you’re choosing sides on this issue, make sure you’ll be comfortable with that assessment a generation from now.


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