Marriage Myths, Pt. 1: Marriage Equality and Religious Freedom

There are a lot of arguments for and against marriage equality, but a few in particular that are being used repeatedly by the presidential candidates. They’ve become such standard answers that no one seems to even question them anymore.

After my blog yesterday criticizing the press for not questioning candidates when they utter misleading statements or give pat answers that couldn’t bear much scrutiny (but luckily for them don’t ever have to), I figured it was only right that I would try to challenge some of the nice-sounding but false justifications they give for denying full equality to LGBT citizens.

This post will be the first in a series, each looking at one of the major arguments.

I’m starting with one of the most common: that marriage is a religious institution.

Obviously, this is one of the favorites of the religious right, the same folks who argue that hate crime legislation will somehow restrict their religious freedom. (In what faith is beating gays to a bloody pulp a form of religious expression? Wait, I don’t want to know.)

The argument by the religious right, and by those kissing the asses of the religious right, like Mitt Romney, is that marriage equality would threaten their rights to religious expression. ( “Social conservatives say gay marriage threatens religious freedom”)

To them I say, “How?”

What religious expression will you no longer have if I get married?


You’ll still be able to pray and worship as you please. You’ll still be able to express your view that homosexuality as a sin. You’ll still be able to picket Pride and shout over your bullhorns that we’re filthy perverts who are going to hell. You’ll still be able to limit marriage within your church to those you deem worthy of marriage.

Ah, that last one is the bogeyman that is usually thrown out by the likes of Jim Dobson and Tony Perkins to frighten their sheep. They say things like, “the government shouldn’t be able to force churches to marry gays.”

To which I say, “You’re right. They shouldn’t. And no one is asking them to.”

The leaders on the right know damn well that the government can’t and won’t force any church to perform any marriages they don’t agree with. They just want to scare people.

This won’t be introducing a conflict between state-sanctioned and church-sanctioned marriages. We already have that conflict, and have for years, and it doesn’t cause any problems.

Think about it. Let’s look at Mr. Romney’s religion. The LDS church has very strict rules about who can be married in a Mormon temple. In fact, they have very strict rules about who can even attend a wedding in a Mormon temple, which leaves many non-Mormon parents sitting outside in the parking lot while their children get married. But does the government, which obviously doesn’t require that people be temple-worthy to get a marriage certificate, force the church to allow others to get married in their temple? No.

Likewise, the Catholic church does not recognize divorce. Therefore, they consider divorced people to still be married and will not allow them to marry someone else. Obviously, state and federal law do allow divorced people to get married again (a liberty many of our fine, upstanding, family-values Republican leaders have taken advantage of time and time and time again). But just because it’s perfectly legal doesn’t mean the Catholic church has to allow it within their church. They don’t allow it, and no one is forcing them to.

Mormons, Catholics, and any other church get to decide which marriages they will perform, sanctify, or recognize, regardless of what state and federal law allows. Why would it be any different if same-sex marriages were legal?

The reason it won’t be an issue is that marriage as a religious ceremony is completely separate from marriage as a legal contract.

And this brings up the second argument, the one made by more moderate Republicans and, unfortunately, most of our Democratic leaders. This is the argument of those who push for the “separate but equal” compromise of civil unions.

For example, Barack Obama’s stance on marriage equality is that civil unions are fine, but marriage is a religious bond.(

Pardon me, Sen. Obama, but that is not correct. Marriage is a religious bond, but it is also separately a secular legal contract. (Don’t worry, I’m not picking on just Obama. I’ll get to Clinton and Edwards later in the series.)

Obama has also said, “I’m a Christian. And so, although I try not to have my religious beliefs dominate or determine my political views on this issue, I do believe that tradition, and my religious beliefs say that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman.” (Chicago Tribune)

It’s fine if as a Christian he believes that his church should define marriage in those terms.
As a Senator and possibly President, his role is to make decisions on marriage as a legal status, not on marriage within his church.

They are two separate things.

Many people are confused on this because, unlike many countries where couples go through separate civil and religious ceremonies, in the US clerics can be licensed to solemnize civil marriage. So for those who are married in a church, it appears that it is only a religious bond.

But there are really two sets of requirements being met and two separate ceremonies occuring simultaneously.

If the couple is being married in a particular church, they have obviously met the requirements of the church. As stated above, those can be stricter than the state requirements, as they are for Mormons and Catholics. But they might also be more inclusive than the state’s. For example, some churches will perform ceremonies for same-sex couples, and, in the eyes of the church, they are married.

But for the marriage to be recognized outside the church, it must also meet separate state requirements (which vary state to state). Obviously, the same-sex couple who might be considered married in the church, will not meet the state requirements if they live in any state other than Massachusetts. A minister can marry anyone s/he wants within the church, but that marriage won’t be legally recognized if the couple does not also meet the requirements of the state for marriage.

So we already have separate definitions of religious and civil marriage. They just sometimes happen to take place in one ceremony, but they are separate things.

And what about marriages that don’t take place in a church? How do Obama and the rest reconcile that with the definition of marriage as a religious tradition? Does that mean that couples who get married by a judge or a court clerk or an Elvis impersonator are not married?

Marriage is a profoundly important sacrament in the faith I was brought up in. It’s significance is deep and meaningful and taken very seriously. I can understand that a Romney or Obama would want to be able to preserve the rights of religious institutions to define marriage as they see fit. I agree with preserving that right, and believe that the separation of church and state is as much to protect churches as to protect the state.

I can understand that people of faith like Romney and Obama have beliefs about what marriage means within their respective churches. And as members of their respective churches, they can do whatever they want within the church to uphold those traditions.

But we’re not talking about definitions of marriage within a church. We’re talking about the civil rights of citizens to engage in a legal contract. As President, Romney or Obama or anyone else needs to consider the rights of all citizens, not just those who share their particular faith.

Marriage is an important religious tradition. No one is threatening that or trying to deprive churches of the right to define marriage however they want.

But marriage is also a legal status granted by the state that gives legal protections and benefits. We all deserve that right, regardless of religion.

Go to Part 2.


1 Comment

  1. July 11, 2007 at 7:15 pm

    […] July 11th, 2007 at 7:15 pm (Uncategorized) I’ve been meaning to get back to this series, looking at the arguments that Democrats use to deny marriage equality.  A few weeks ago I talked about the first myth, that marriage is a religious institution. […]

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