General Topics

On Marriage for Same-Sex Couples

(written for a talk on 8/6/08 to the Interfaith Alliance)

Alan asked that I join him today in talking to you on the topic of marriage for same-sex couples and I thank you for having me.

To start, I’ll share with you a bit of information that caught Alan by surprise and may surprise you as well; I’m not a member of the GLBT community. I am a heterosexual, single man. What’s more, there is no one in my family, as far as I know, who is a member of the GLBT community.

A few months back I, along with a few other members from the FEC (Family Equality Coalition), met with Senator Hooser to discuss legislation relating to the issue of marriage for same-sex couples. To open the meeting, each member introduced him or herself and gave a brief statement as to why they felt strongly about the issue. When my turn came, I told the Senator that the issue didn’t affect me directly, but I was interested in the the issue as a matter of social justice.

Before moving forward, let me tell you a bit about myself. I was raised as a Reform Jew in a Kansas City suburb. I attended Miami University, in Ohio, where I received a Bachelor’s Degree in Comparative Religion and Philosophy, with a Minor in Jewish Studies. For a short time, I considered attending Rabbinic School. Nearly six years ago, I moved to Honolulu and two and a half years ago became active in politics here. I was recently elected as a Co-Chair of the Progressive Democrats of Hawaii. I am on the Board of the Family Equality Coalition, with Alan, as many of you know and I am also the Chair of my District and President of my Precinct.

This cause, along with my belief in the need to protect our basic, Constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, led me to join the ACLU and seriously contemplate becoming a law student.

Regarding the matter at hand and the topic of this discussion, I see the issue of marriage for same-sex couples in the light of separation of church and state, guaranteed by the First Amendment and in the shadow of the civil rights movement of the 1960s.

Starting with the former, let me take a moment to describe for you my religious background, upbringing, and beliefs. I was raised as a Reform Jew and practiced as a child by attending services occasionally, when required to do so by my parents. We celebrated the ‘important’ holidays such as Chanukah, Passover, Rosh Hashana, and Yom Kippur.

When I went away to college, I became active in Hillel, which is a collegiate Jewish organization, as a way to meet people and make friends. I met Jews from various types of upbringing, from Reform Jews like myself, to relatively Orthodox Jews in belief and practice. I started attending weekly Shabbos services, at first because doing so meant a free meal afterward. Then I started to learn about my religious heritage, about the different types of prayers, of traditions, of songs, and came to appreciate and look forward to the service itself, at least as much as the free meal.

The year I went away to college and became a Hillel member, I started keeping kosher. While I continued to question the existence of g-d, I liked the idea of keeping kosher because doing so made me conscious everyday of my Judaism. I’ve never been strong in faith, though I do feel a particular connection to the history, traditions, and culture of the Jewish people and religion. After college, my Jewish education continued and, for a time, I was praying three times daily, with tallis and tafilin. I strictly observed Shabbos for three months before moving to Hawaii.

One of the lessons I took from all these experiences was the notion of study.

Along with the Hebrew Scriptures, there is a long and voluminous body of Rabbinic Commentary on nearly every conceivable topic regarding daily life. As Jews, we are commanded to study; it is important the practice of our faith be more than memorization, recitation, and repetition. We must understand and internalize the prayers and rituals and make them a part of us.

The Jewish experience of faith is also a deeply personal one; while services are community events, recitation of the most important and meaningful prayers are spoken as a whisper, as a private conversation between you and g-d. Jews are not known for proselytizing and the Jewish tradition has never called on its people to convert ‘non-believers.’ While I have no doubt there are Orthodox, even Conservative Jews who are opposed to the idea of marriage for same-sex couples, never have I heard one publicly admonish the idea or actively work to prevent such a bill from becoming law.

Here is, in my opinion, the real intent of the religious establishment provision of the First Amendment; the protection of the minority views and beliefs from a religious majority. The Bible’s prohibition against homosexuality is religious in nature and like so many other laws passed throughout history, those prohibiting homosexual behavior, or marriage, can find their roots in religious beliefs. When those beliefs are contrary to the rights and freedoms provided by the Constitution, they should no longer be held up as law.

Two years ago, in the heat of the campaign season, I heard speak a Democratic Candidate for Governor, William Aila Jr. During a question and answer session, he was asked about his position regarding marriage for same-sex couples and his response was one I hadn’t heard and was startled by: government should remove itself from the business of marriage.

Let me say here, that this is certainly not in any way the position of the FEC, nor is it necessarily mine. I do, however, find the concept interesting and would like to draw it out a bit.

Marriage, which is used in all sorts of legal contexts, is ultimately a religious ritual and concept. That means all the legal rights, tax entitlements, insurance and estate benefits receive their legal standing from a religious union, further muddying the church-state separation. When President Bush and others speak about the need to protect marriage, they’re really referring to the traditional, religious concept of marriage. As such, the proposed Constitutional Amendment banning marriage for same-sex couples would be an affront to the Constitutional separation of church and state, much in the same way the fight for school prayer has lost in the courts, time and again, as being in violation of the First Amendment.

Continuing along this line of reasoning, it seems to me, government should not have the ability or authority, as is the case in Hawaii, for example, to define marriage. Again, marriage is a religious ceremony and contract, the definition of which should be confined to the realm of religious belief.

Following this idea of separating marriage and government would be a law requiring everyone to get a civil union, instead of, or in addition to, a religious marriage. Making this a requirement for all couples, it seems to me, would immediately make it impossible to distinguish the idea of marriage from that of a civil union. In either case, couples would have all the rights, privileges and benefits only married couples are now receiving in all but a few states. In this context would the state have the ability and authority to lay out the guidelines regarding civil unions, no marriage. For this, the word ‘marriage’ would in every legal context and document, be replaced by the term ‘civil union.’ A government created civil union would have a wholly separate definition from that of the religious union of marriage. A civil union in this instance would be devoid of religious undertones and as such it would be easier for government to ensure and protect the equal rights of same-sex couples.

Again, I’m not necessarily advocating this solution be applied as a remedy to guarantee the rights of gay couples, but make the case as more of a mental exercise regarding the current problem and, as I see it, the flawed notion of marriage in our civil society.

To be fair, and to show how strongly¬† I feel about the First Amendment’s church and state clause, I am of the opinion that government should not pay for or display religious holiday decorations on public property or government buildings.

Continuing on, I want to talk about the social justice aspect of the battle for equality for the GLBT community. As i see it, there have been three major battles in the United States for equality. The first came in the form of the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865. The second, woman’s suffrage, claimed a major victory in 1920, with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment. Finally, the third struggle came in the corm of the civil rights movement of the 1960s winning desegregation and affirmative action. While these struggles are largely seen as having been successful, women, blacks, and other minorities continue to struggle for real equality.

As with those previous major battles for equality, the GLBT community struggles to prove the deserve or need equal rights and protections under the law. In some ways, woman’s suffrage and the civil rights movement had it easier. For example, at no time did blacks or women have to deny their skin color or gender wasn’t a personal choice. With politicians, religious leaders, and scientists debating ‘nature versus nurture,’ homosexuals have an additional hurdle to overcome in convincing people that their attraction to the same sex is as innate, as natural as most people’s attraction to the opposite sex. They have also to contend with those with strong religious beliefs denouncing homosexuality as a sin. In the last two or three decades, the religious right has been a major political force making their collective voice loud and hard to ignore. Luckily, with the missteps of the Bush Administration and Republicans in recent years, their influence is starting to wane.

And while the ‘nature versus nurture’ debate may have been won in academic circles, many average citizens, even some of our elected representatives in government may still operate with the notion that it is a conscious choice.

There was a time in our country, not all that long ago, when it was the common feeling, even law, that whites and blacks could not marry. Even though there may still be those who believe this should be the case, the government and the law do not, in principle anyway, distinguish skin color. So will it be with sexual orientation.

I saw will, because if the events of the last few months and years are any indication, the tide is starting to turn. More and more people are starting to understand the need for equal rights for members of the GLBT community. People are ‘coming out,’ who just a year ago may have been too frightened to do so. Elected officials and governments are starting to understand the stress, the frustration, and the fear same-sex couples live with every day because they are not currently afforded the same protections and rights as others in this country.

To be honest, until recently, I didn’t understand why marriage was such an important goal. To me, if a civil union provided all the same legal rights and protections under the law, what was the difference? A few months ago, Alan made the distinction clear to me in an example, though he was actually speaking to someone else. At hospitals, patients can have visitors during visitor hours, though not otherwise. If a couple has had a civil union, giving them the rights matching those who get married, they’re still not ‘married’ and while the law may make a distinction, there will certainly be countless scores of people who won’t understand that, including doctors, nurses, and staff at hospitals. If Alan and JP were to get a civil union and later one of them, heaven forbid, ended up in the hospital, would the staff there understand the rights a civil union provides the patient and their spouse? It’s questionable. Technically, they wouldn’t be ‘married,’ so when one of them are asked how they’re related to the patient, how would they be able to respond in a way that was clear to the questioner. More to the point, however, should they even be forced to make such an explanation? For there to be true equality, the answer is a resounding no.

It is subtle differences as this one that would never occur to me, as someone who would never be in such a position. Sometimes in the fight for equality, educating the public is the most important aspect. During the civil rights movement in the 60s, black protesters brought their point home by showing the country just how they were being treated differently.

For me, the measure of equality lies in putting myself in the others place. How would I feel if I were denied service at a restaurant because of some personal trait over which I have no control or say? How would I feel if I were forced to the back of the bus, or denied the ability to visit a loved one in the hospital, or if I couldn’t plan for and protect my spouse in the instance of my untimely demise? What if I couldn’t marry the person I love? This is how I measure equality.

As a Jew, I’m luck to have never personally experienced antisemitism, though I’ve certainly read about it and have friends and family who’ve experienced it. If the United States truly aspires to be a light for and an example to the rest of the world, how can we continue to relegate a portion of our citizenry to second-class status, as we have with the GLBT community and same-sex couples?

The answer, simply, is that we cannot. We must, as a State and a Nation, take what might be the hard road.

Another point I feel I must mention, though it isn’t directly related to our topic, is the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ law for military service. All the men and women in our armed forces are strong, brave, and courageous people, so why should they have to lie about their sexuality to be fit to serve? If they love their country enough to serve, potentiall sacrificing their lives, what should it matter

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