Culture

"I Thee Wed"

From All My Children, which featured the first lesbian wedding on daytime television.

Weddings performed by a justice of the peace, a ship's captain, or an Elvis impersonator don't fit into the historical, traditional view of marriage, performed in and sanctioned by the church – but they’re legal.

Do a Google search for the term "same-sex marriage". I'll wait. Odds are that you got over 33 million results. Seems like everyone has something to say on the subject, good, bad, or ignorant.

Which is one reason I've never devoted an entire article to the subject ‘til now. After all, what could I say that is new? Still, there comes a time when the elephant in the room is tearing up all the furniture and peeing on everything and you just have to say, "Hey, look. There's a big elephant making a mess, here!"

Vermont, Iowa, New York, Washington, D.C., Connecticut -- most likely, you don't need me to tell you what's going on in those states (and the district of D.C.). And if you're a savvy, literate person, you've already seen Frank Rich's wonderful New York Times piece deconstructing the ridiculous "Gathering Storm" commercial from the National Organization for Marriage, a group whose sole purpose it to stop loving couples from getting married, as opposed to helping those in troubled marriages fix their problems.

Instead, let me direct your attention to another well written op-ed piece, “Constitutional amendment on gay marriage is a waste of time” (11 March 2009), this one by an excellent writer named Michael Abernethy. No, not me. This Michael Abernethy is a writer with The Times News, Burlington, North Carolina's leading, and -- one assumes -- only, newspaper.

Abernethy excels at deconstructing some of the arguments against allowing gay marriage with wit and intelligence. (In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that Michael and I are e-mail acquaintances and he is probably a distant cousin of some sort, as I have a considerable number of kinfolk in that area of the country.)

In response to the idea that allowing gay marriage will destroy the traditional marriage, he notes, "America's idea of the sanctity of marriage ended sometime between Elizabeth Taylor's fourth or fifth husband and Britney Spears' 55-hour marriage to a school friend." And he seems almost gleeful when it is suggested by an anti-gay crusader that after allowing gay marriage, marriage with "pets or robots" could be next: "I'll be first to sign the papers and finally consummate my love for 'Agnes' -- my red, hollow-body, Washburn electric guitar - to whom I've been devoted for 10 years."

What I like about Abernethy, aside from the great name, is his ability to cut through carefully constructed claims that are basically bullshit and fear-mongering and get to the absurdity of the primary arguments. And you should read some of his music reviews -- he's not shy about telling you a piece of crap music when he hears it, either. But I digress.

The same qualities I like in Michael's article are what I like about the Iowa Supreme Court's ruling on gay marriage, only take out the wit and add a lengthy discussion of the Iowa state constitution, with emphasis on the striking similarities to the U.S. Constitution (message to the U.S. Supreme Court received, thank you). The ruling cut down a well-financed, finely tuned anti-gay argument with logic, based in adherence to the principles of the Constitution. For instance, in response to arguments that the people of Iowa were opposed to gay marriage, the court replied, "A statute inconsistent with the Iowa Constitution must be declared void, even though it may be supported by strong and deep-seated traditional beliefs and popular opinion." (p. 13, VARNUM, HYDE, BARBOUROSKE, BARBOUROSKE, MORGAN, SWAGGERTY, TWOMBLEY, HOCH, MUSSER, DREAMING, OLSON, and EVANS v. TIMOTHY J. BRIEN, In His Official Capacities as the Polk County Recorder and Polk County Registrar.) They got it: that marriage is a legal right, not a religious practice. That doesn't preclude people from making the marriage ceremony a religious service, in any of a number of ceremony choices, but at its heart, marriage is all about the law.

Even if you have a grandiose wedding worthy of a four-page spread in People and performed by the Pope himself, you're not married in the United States until you file an official license with the government and some clerk with a bad attitude and hair extensions enters your information into the state's computer records. Then, you stay married until some court says you're not, at which point you are legally single, regardless of what your church thinks or says.

In fact, many denominations just avoid the whole divorce issue, leaving it strictly to the courts to determine. This is understandable, though; after pronouncing "what God has joined together, let no man put asunder" during the wedding, you've kind of painted yourself into a corner. Who really wants to take on God?

Thus, marriage exists in two forms in America: the legal form, which gets you tax breaks and hospital visitation rights, and the religious form, which gets you peace of mind in knowing that you are not going to Hell for screwing around with your spouse. Churches are free, and always have been, to marry whomever they want and to not marry those they don't want.

There are still a few churches that won't marry interracial couples, and some that won't perform someone's second (or third, fourth…) marriage. And there are plenty that won't marry gays. That is their right, and I absolutely support them in that right, as offensive as it may be.

That leaves legal marriage. One could easily argue that those weddings performed by a justice of the peace, ship's captain, or Elvis impersonator don't fit into the historical, traditional view of marriage, performed in and sanctioned by the church. Yet, no one has proposed in our lengthy discussion of traditional marriage that these marriages are invalid, which is recognition of the legal aspects of the issue and acknowledgement that weddings performed outside the church are legitimate. This is the area that the Iowa Supreme Court looked at in assessing the constitutionality of gay marriage:

Iowa Code section 595.2 is unconstitutional because the County has been unable to identify a constitutionally adequate justification for excluding plaintiffs from the institution of civil marriage. A new distinction based on sexual orientation would be equally suspect and difficult to square with the fundamental principles of equal protection embodied in our constitution. This record, our independent research, and the appropriate equal protection analysis do not suggest the existence of a justification for such a legislative classification that substantially furthers any governmental objective. (You can read the entire 68-page decision here.)

Now, if I recall my high school civics class correctly, in order to bring an action, the state must have a compelling interest. For instance, it is in the state's best interest to prosecute a serial killer because it protects the citizenry or to establish educational standards because it allows the development of society. The supreme court said the state of Iowa has no compelling interest in refusing gays the right to get married. That's it in a nutshell.

To reach this conclusion, the Iowa Supreme Court (and others that have issued similar rulings) had to cut through innumerable claims that rejecting gay marriage did "substantially further" some purpose of government, including that gays are a threat to children, gay marriage would destroy heterosexual marriage, and gay marriage would redefine marriage to allow any type of wedding contract, including with robots and Agnes the electric guitar. In my mind, I see Iowa's Madame Chief Justice waving her magic gavel at those opposing gay marriage and saying, "Be gone, before someone drops a house on you", but I imagine there was probably a little more decorum to the ruling.

Those who oppose gay marriage are in full, code-red hyperdrive, dispensing emergency teams to various states with an efficiency that FEMA could learn from. As more legislative bodies adopt gay marriage bills, it will grow increasingly difficult for them to argue that activist judges are skirting the will of the people. Most certainly, the next few years will see innumerable ballot measures to amend state constitutions to bar gay marriage, and a sad number of them will pass.

In the meantime, thousand of gay couples will have had time to get married, settle in next door, and pose a threat to absolutely no one. When Carol and Sarah settle down in Keokuk, Iowa, with their two kids, get involved in the local PTA and Neighborhood Watch, and use their connections to lure some hot acts to the annual Keokuk Rollin' on the River Blues Fest, then folks might see them as an integral part of the community, not a warning sign of the pending apocalypse.

As more courts and legislative bodies recognize the legal aspects of marriage, separate from the religious, and more people grow comfortable with their gay neighbors, co-workers, friends, and relatives, gay marriage will become a reality. There will be a time when it is legal in all 50 states, and it will be such a part of our societal fabric that people will look back at this fight for rights with amazement and disdain that such a violation of human rights continued for so long in America. This probably won't happen in my lifetime, mind you, but that's OK. Not every soldier gets to see the end of the battle.

In the end, I really haven't said anything new, just as I predicted. All the arguments for and against gay marriage have been on the table for a while now, and all I may have accomplished is adding one more hit to the 33 million plus results you'll get on Google. But at least I can get that damn elephant out of my living room, now.

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