Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Minnesota Theologian Gary Boelhower: Marriage Equality Is About Equality

And from Terry Weldon's outstanding Queering the Church blog yesterday, powerful testimony from a theologian, Gary Boelhower, teaching at St. Scholastica College in Duluth, Minnesota.  Terry links to an op-ed statement Boelhower wrote Monday for the Duluth News Tribune as the proposal to revise the Minnesota constitution to ban same-sex marriage, about which I blogged yesterday, goes to the legislature. 

Gary Boelhower prefaces his testimony by noting that the Minnesota constitution explicitly states, "No member of this state shall be … deprived of any of the rights or privileges secured to any citizen."  As he notes, he and his fellow citizens who are also gay or lesbian are asking merely to enjoy the rights and privileges afforded by the state constitution (and the national one) to all citizens--by virtue of the humanity they share with other citizens.

Boelhower notes that there is a range of viewpoints among faith communities in his state about same-sex marriage and the morality of homosexuality.  His own union with his partner will be celebrated in a United Church of Christ later this year.  

But neither he nor other LGBT citizens of Minnesota who are asking for a right afforded to all other citizens--the right of civil marriage (which brings with it a significant number of rights and privileges from which gay families are excluded prima facie when civil marriage is denied to gay couples)--are proposing that any faith community be forced to accept same-sex marriage.  This is a debate about the human rights afforded to all citizens in a civil context, in the context of pluralistic secular societies in which the religious viewpoint of any group should not be enshrined in civil law:

I am not asking your church to change its teachings. In the U.S. we are free to express a diversity of spiritual traditions. Religious marriage will justly remain the prerogative of each faith tradition.

But the state of Minnesota is constitutionally bound to treat all citizens equally; that includes civil-marriage equality.

Last Tuesday, Republicans in the Minnesota Legislature announced plans to put a gay marriage ban before voters in 2012 (“Minnesota lawmakers push for gay marriage vote,” April 27). To ban gay marriage would institutionalize injustice in our constitution, which wisely emphasizes the rights of all citizens and protects against the discriminatory reservation of certain rights to only some citizens.

As we know from our history, it is not unusual for those in power or those in the majority to reserve certain rights and privileges for themselves. Not until 1920 did women have the right to vote. Not until 1967 were laws criminalizing interracial marriage ruled unconstitutional. It is not coincidental that strong religious arguments were used to enforce racial segregation at the level of marriage and intimate relationships.

In seeking marriage equality, I am not asking for special privileges; I am simply claiming the same protections and responsibilities as my heterosexual married neighbors.

This is an admirably clear statement.  And, reading it, I have to wonder why some U.S. citizens and members of faith communities still don't see the point that is so clear here: this is a cultural debate about something that has happened over and over in American society as the foundational principles of our democracy are extended to groups that have been excluded from full participation solely due to indefensible discrimination.  The cultural discussion in which we're involved right now in American society, vis-a-vis marriage equality, is not a discussion about how and whether religious viewpoints should dictate legal norms in American society.

Religious viewpoints can't do that.  Not in a bona fide secular democracy.  Not in a pluralistic society normed by foundational documents that enshrine democratic principles in those normative documents.  

This is a debate about equality.  It's a debate about the full inclusion in our democratic society of a group of citizens stigmatized by prejudice, who continue to be excluded from the social mainstream by legalized discrimination that impedes their ability to contribute, to pursue their careers, to raise families, and so forth. 

What on earth does any Christian church imagine it's doing, defending the exclusion of some members of the human community from the social mainstream, solely because a church wants to envisage those human beings as less than human?  And in what way does the attack on those stigmatized human beings by leaders of any religious community--in Minnesota, notably the state's Catholic bishops--contribute to a healthy society that respects human rights?

These are questions that aren't going go to away anywhere in the United States anytime soon--anywhere including Minnesota.  No matter how much Catholic leaders shout to the rest of us that they're defending human rights by denying them to gay and lesbian people.

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