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Religion Remains At Center of Marriage Equality Debate

by Kilian Melloy
Friday Jun 5, 2009

As marriage equality finds support in state after the next, with state lawmakers having taken on the role of supporting the civil rights of gay and lesbian families that the courts had previously played, religion remains at the center of the issue, with marriage opponents seeking to dominate the discussion with one view of morality, while others counter that civil rights, personal responsibility, and support for all families are also moral issues in need of recognition.

The hierarchy of the Catholic Church has remained opposed to legal recognition of gay and lesbian families of any faith, or no faith, characterizing homosexuality in pathological terms and issuing statements about the function of marriage that single out gay and lesbian couples but ignore heterosexual couples who do not meet the criteria that the church sets out.

A June 4 article carried at the Catholic News Agency Web site reported on the issue, placing quotation marks around the word marriage whenever it appeared in the context of gay and lesbian couples.

Even though six states currently honor family equality, the bishops declared that for New York to follow suit would be a "drastic measure" in a June 1 statement on the issue, reported CNA.

The New York bishops, led by Archbishop Timothy Dolan, said in their statement that, "We face today the prospect of a law in New York which would radically change the timeless institution of marriage.

"As pastors of citizens from every corner of our great state, we stand unified in our strong opposition to such a drastic measure."

The statement reiterated the church's teaching that marriage should be "the union of a man and a woman in an enduring bond, ordered for the procreation and stable rearing of children."

The statement did not appear to address the issue of couples in which at least one partner is sterile, or of couples past their child-bearing years.

However, the statement attempted to cast opposition to legal parity for gay and lesbian families as wider in scope than objections based in religion, asserting that denial of marriage equality "is based on reason, sound public policy, and plain common sense."

Moreover, the bishops made the argument that, "the state has a compelling legal interest in promoting marriage between men and women in order to create stable families and provide for the safety, health and well being of children," though they stopped short of saying that heterosexual divorce should be illegal.

Dismissing the needs of committed couples of the same gender, the bishops declared that, "the state has no such compelling legal interest in recognizing a relationship between two people of the same sex."

The bishops added that their "firm beliefs about marriage... must not be misconstrued to be in any way a condemnation of homosexual people or an attack on their human dignity," CNA reported.

A June 5 article at Catholic Online bearing a byline of "Deacon Keith Fournier" pathologized same-sex couples, quoting from the writings of Pope Benedict XVI, who has said that gays and lesbians suffer from "a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent."

The diagnosis of a "disordered sexual inclination," also referred to in the article as a "disordered appetite," was cited throughout, even though Pope Benedict XVI is not a practicing mental health professional.

The American Psychological Association removed homosexuality from its listing of metal illnesses in 1973.

However, the author of the essay couched the Pope's non-professional diagnosis in doctrinal terms, claiming that the church was the sole arbiter of truth.

Wrote Deacon Fournier, "The Catholic Church will not change its position on the nature of marriage because it cannot. Truth is not up for grabs."

The Deacon also made a claim to an exclusive understanding of "Natural Law," a term that was not defined and that seemed to disregard scientific evidence that homosexuality is naturally occurring in many species, including but not limited to the human species.

Deacon Fournier quoted from Pope Benedict's "Letter to the Bishops of the Catholic Church on the Pastoral Care of Homosexual Persons," which was written in 1986, before then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger became Pope.

Among the quotes selected for inclusion in Deacon Fournier's article was one that stated that consensual sexual intimacy between committed partners of the same gender was immoral.

Read the quote, "It is only in the marital relationship that the use of the sexual faculty can be morally good."

Proceeding then to assume that only heterosexual couples could or ought to be married, the text continued, "A person engaging in homosexual behavior therefore acts immorally."

The quotations continued with, "Homosexual activity is not a complementary union, able to transmit life; and so it thwarts the call to a life of that form of self-giving which the Gospel says is the essence of Christian living.

"This does not mean that homosexual persons are not often generous and giving of themselves; but when they engage in homosexual activity they confirm within themselves a disordered sexual inclination which is essentially self-indulgent."

Moving from psychological diagnosis to ethical pronouncement, Benedict's "Letter" added, "As in every moral disorder, homosexual activity prevents one's own fulfillment and happiness by acting contrary to the creative wisdom of God."

Assuming any other understanding of human sexual diversity to be in error, the Letter continued, "The Church, in rejecting erroneous opinions regarding homosexuality, does not limit but rather defends personal freedom and dignity realistically and authentically understood."

Suggesting that the legal contract of marriage bestowed by the countries and states where marriage equality is recognized is not in some way genuine, Deacon Fournier wrote, "Catholics who are faithful cannot and will not accept the effort to undermine authentic marriage.

"Thus, those who follow the teaching of the Church may be on a collision course with the current approach to this matter being embraced by the US Administration."

The article went on to cite President Obama's declaration of June to be "Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month," and to quote Obama as saying, "The LGBT rights movement has achieved great progress, but there is more work to be done. LGBT youth should feel safe to learn without the fear of harassment, and LGBT families and seniors should be allowed to live their lives with dignity and respect."

Dismissing Obama's words, and seeming to shrug aside guarantees in the United States prohibiting a state religion, Deacon Fournier's article declared, "Homosexual sexual acts, even if engaged in with one partner for a long time, can never be the equivalent of a marriage, no matter what any court or legislature says."

Fournier's article also denied that marriage equality was a civil rights issue; wrote the deacon, "Efforts of some within the homosexual movement to equate how one engages in non-marital sexual acts with a member of the same sex with being a member of a particular race, or gender and thereby a 'protected class' for civil rights purposes is legally and socially dangerous.

"One is a status; the other involves behavior, a chosen behavior and a lifestyle."

Giving fleeting attention to one scientific theory of homosexuality, Deacon Fournier wrote, "Some maintain that same sex attraction is a genetic predisposition. This is disputed.

"Even if it were the case, that does not give homosexual activity any more of a claim to being given a special civil rights status.

"Should we really give disordered appetites civil rights status under the law?"

Fournier went on to compare homosexual "disordered appetites" to his own obesity, writing, "A very good argument can be made that obesity also has a genetic predisposition.

"However, I will fight it my whole life because it is unhealthy. It is a disordered appetite."

Added Fournier, "Should we as a Nation decide that fat people have a civil right to be fat? Should those who insist that they resist that 'genetic predisposition' to overeat be called Fata-phobic?"

To date, no state's obese citizens have seen their health care access subjected to popular vote or constitutional restriction, despite medical evidence that links diabetes and other costly diseases to obesity.

Nor have obese citizens been the subject of expensive advertising campaigns intended to disseminate distorted or false claims about them and their families.

Added Deacon Fournier, "Homosexual sexual acts are simply homosexual sexual acts. Our bodies do not lie, they speak the language written within their constitution and confirmed in the Natural Law which binds us all."

Homosexual persons often insist that their sexuality is not a matter of choice but is something that arises from deep within them on its own; in this manner, Fournier's religiously-based view of homosexuality might be in agreement with the claims of gays themselves.

However, Fournier went on to claim that those who advocate for equality of access to civil marriage are working against marriage, rather than for inclusion within is legal definition.

"Homosexual activists who oppose marriage--and that is precisely what the so called 'Marriage Equality' or 'Freedom to Marry' movement actually does--are the ones who want to turn the clock back and impede progress.

"They are 'Regressives' not 'Progressives," Deacon Fournier argued.

"The foundation for the real progress made in Western civilization is partly because of the special recognition and place given to the first society of the family.

"That family is founded upon authentic marriage between one man and one woman.

"It is the first mediating institution of civil society," added Fournier, going on to state, "Marriage and family ground our organizing vision of the broader society and informs our philosophy of governance, including the proper place of the principle of subsidiarity, deferring to the family first."

Fournier further argued that claims that opposition to marriage equality under civil law stem mainly from religious belief constitute "anti-religious bigotry."

"Should Disordered Appetites be Civil Rights?" wrote Deacon Fournier. "The answer is a resounding 'No!'"

While such arguments are unlikely to sway marriage equality advocates--who seek family recognition under civil, rather than religious, law--legislators are increasingly sensitive to a need to reassure people of faith that, contrary to claims made by anti-marriage organizations, marriage equality for gay and lesbian families will not erode guarantees of religious freedom. Indeed, recently passed state law granting marriage equality in Maine specifically provides exemptions on religious grounds for churches and individuals, allowing them to refuse to marry same-sex couples.

Nonetheless, opposition to marriage equality in Maine, as elsewhere, is headed by religious organizations, who are not mollified by the legal provisions and have launched an attempt to repeal the law through a ballot initiative.

Some marriage equality advocates are strategizing in ways that embrace the inclusion of and alliance with people of faith who view marriage equality as a civil, rather than religious, issue, and share a concern that denying marriage to select minorities constitutes a violation of civil rights.

A June 4 report from The Center for American Progress was issued on June 4.

The report examined the role of religion in the success of the 2004 Michigan ballot initiative that not only barred marriage equality, but denied same-sex couples basic rights such as health insurance.

The report found that the anti-marriage side raised more money than pro-marriage advocates, but just crucially, the anti-marriage side couched their argument in religion, whereas the pro-marriage side relied on non-religious arguments such as civil rights and equality before the law.

The report found that several components are key to any successful countering of attempts through ballot initiative to roadblock or rescind family parity rights, including alliances between people of faith, no matter their religious background, and civil rights advocates of all stripes, including GLBT equality advocates.

Moreover, the report found that it is crucial for GLBT equality advocates to seek to correct false and misleading claims from anti-gay groups, such as were used in the successful campaign in California last year to rescind existing marriage rights from minority families.

Of particular note was the insistence of the report that advocates for legal equality for gay and lesbian individuals and families not write off all members of any given religion, no matter how publicly the church leadership may have expressed opposition to legal remedies for inequalities experienced by GLBT Americans.

The report specified the Catholic Church and the Mormon faith, both of which came in for criticism in the wake of the passage of California's ballot initiative, Proposition 8, stripping gay and lesbian families of existing marriage rights in the last election.

Some members of the Mormon faith appear to agree that GLBT equality advocates do themselves little good by issuing blanket condemnations, even when the leadership of a given denomination has itself made sweeping proclamations about gays and lesbians.

An article that appeared in the student newspaper of Mormon school Brigham Young University on June 3 named a California GLBT equality advocacy group, Californians Against Hate, as allegedly partaking in such negative blanket rhetoric against the Mormon church through an ad campaign critical of the church's level of activity in efforts to pass Proposition 8.

The ad in question warns, "The Mormons Are Coming!" and appears in states where marriage equality is a pending issue before the legislatures, according to the article, and accuse the Mormon church of creating the anti-gay group National Organization for Marriage as a means of becoming even more active in campaigns to stop, and even reverse, marriage equality legislation.

The article quoted Californians Against Hate leader Fred Karger as saying, "I'm not intending it to harm the religion. I think they do wonderful things."

Added Karger, "My single goal is to get them out of the same-sex marriage business and back to helping hurricane victims."

The article went on to quote opinions from BYU students, one of whom expressed criticism for the ads.

Said vice chairman-elect for the university's chapter of the Young Republicans, Jess Jones, "It's sad to see this happening because the one virtue that [marriage equality] proponents had was their belief [in] equality."

Jones referred to the ad campaign by Californians Against Hate as "extremely divisive and hateful.

"It's a testament to the fact that Californians Against Hate... are promoting such sentiment amongst those who perhaps are less acquainted with the LDS Church."

A slightly different view was offered by the vice president of the BY College Democrats, Pete Snyder, who said of ads critical of the church's political involvement in the issue, "I think sometimes they do [go too far] and sometimes they don't."

As for the ad that warns "The Mormons Are Coming!," Snyder said, "The ads that are specifically geared at inducing fear... do undermine their overall message of tolerance.

"Others that simply state that the Mormon Church has no business taking part in this matter do not--they are not trying to induce fear."

The article also quoted a former student of the university, the openly gay George Jaramillo, who said, "I think it's important to be civil but to let people know where you stand.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


  • , 2009-06-05 16:38:28

    This is precisely why the debate over same-gender marriage must include a debate over the constitutional separation of church and state, for there is simply no way that you can avoid it. How can states ban gay and lesbian couples -- whose relationships were fully decriminalized by the U.S. Supreme Court with its landmark Lawrence v. Texas ruling in 2003 -- without imposing into state law an anti-gay religious dictrine in violation of the First Amendment and Religious Test Clause (Article VI, Section 2) of the U.S. Constitution? I say they can’t.

  • , 2009-06-05 19:46:45

    Who is the arbiter of morality? Surely not the State. And surely not any particular religious belief. Therefore, as long as in the words of the cliche "no one is harmed," just about any perversion must be allowed by the State. Not good.

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