How gay marriage isn’t really about marriage

In today’s New York Times article on the strike-down of California’s Proposition 8, the author wrote: “…on Wednesday the winds seemed to be at the back of those who feel that marriage is not, as the voters of California and many other states have said, solely the province of a man and a woman.”

But I think this way of looking at the issue, which unfortunately has been prominent in the debate, misses a much bigger point.

Gay marriage is not about marriage. It is about the role of religious institutions versus the role of civic institutions in modern society.

This point was brought home for me by Rev. Eric Lee, head of the Los Angeles chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and one of the most prominent African-American leaders to support “marriage equality,” as he terms it.

Rev. Lee said to me that marriage is a civil institution as far as the state is concerned – dealing with taxes, legal rights, and property. And as a civil institution, he said, everyone should have equal access to it. Anything less amounts to taxation without representation, and that’s discrimination, Rev. Lee said.

So what about those who would rather call gay marriage “civil unions”? Wouldn’t that achieve the same goal without calling gay unions “marriages,” and thus upsetting those with religious objections?

Rev. Lee’s solution to the problem: all marriages under the eyes of the state should be called civil unions, and then people can go get “married” at whatever church they want and call themselves married. That way, Rev. Lee argues, everyone is equal under the law, and religious institutions are free to define marriage as they like.

A persuasive argument.

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