The announcement Tuesday of two legislative bills that seem radically opposed perfectly highlights the path toward protecting marriage and ending discrimination against gay and lesbian couples. The solution, which a bill to allow gays to marry moves toward, is to separate the civil benefits of such unions from their religious aspects.
Aside from age of consent and preventing incest, the state has no interest in who marries whom. Neither does it matter to the state whether a wedding takes place at City Hall or in a cathedral.
Marriage, from a civil rights perspective, confers benefits to its participants — lower tax rates, health insurance benefits, visitation rights at hospitals, among others. These benefits strengthen communities by encouraging and supporting long-term relationships. Denying these rights and benefits to one group because of their sexual orientation is wrong and weakens communities.
That is why Sen. Dennis Damon has sponsored legislation to allow gays to marry. “It is important to end discrimination wherever it exists,” the Trenton Democrat said Tuesday.
The same day, House Minority Leader Josh Tardy said he planned to put forward a constitutional amendment to restrict marriage to the union of one man and one woman.
The two measures show the importance of the word marriage. Both the coalition supporting gay marriage and groups opposed to it talk of the special status of marriage. “Marriage confers a dignity and respect to a couple that a civil union does not,” the Maine Freedom to Marry Coalition says in its talking points. A couple joined in matrimony by notary public at City Hall has the same respect as a couple who held their wedding at a church. But only the civil ceremony performed by a notary public was necessary to confer the tax and legal benefits of marriage. Such a ceremony can, and should, be available to all. Consigning gay couples to civil unions does not meet this goal.
At the same time, traditional marriage through churches also deserves respect. These churches have matters of deep faith to consider before offering the rites of marriage to any couple, and a church could fairly decide that certain couples don’t adhere to its beliefs.
Separating these two functions — the state sanctioning a union wherever it takes place and a religion blessing a union because it meets its requirements — allows a way forward, while protecting marriage.
Sen. Damon’s bill moves in that direction. A draft shows that it is carefully crafted to remove prohibitions in current law that prevent gays and lesbians from being married while affirming the rights of religious institutions to control who may or may not marry within their faiths.
As this debate begins, there’s time to recognize that there are honest differences of opinion both about who should be allowed to marry and whether a constitutional amendment is required to protect this distinction. But, while we recognize that ideas about marriage are deeply held and cherished, preventing gays from creating formal and legal ties is needlessly exclusionary.