Equal rights a matter of justice

Posted March 11, 2009, at 7:30 p.m.

State Sen. Dennis Damon, D-Trenton, has submitted a bill that would allow same-sex couples to marry in Maine. The reactions have been predictable. Some are overjoyed — finally someone recognizes that the Equal Protection Clause of our Constitution applies to all persons and not just those who hold majority rule. Others are horrified that same-sex couples might be allowed the same status as “traditional” marriage. Some are simply confused by the whole issue and don’t really know what to make of it.

One side argues that same-sex couples are denied a whole host of rights, privileges, and benefits afforded to heterosexual couples. Unless you have been on the receiving end of discriminatory practices, you may not realize the privileged status you hold in society.

There are those who claim biblical interpretation for opposing this legislation. Scripture calls homosexual conduct an abomination; in their eyes, allowing same-sex couples the right to marry legitimizes sin, so marriage must be protected. Honestly, Scripture has many disconcerting things to say, and it would be a slippery slope to invoke selected biblical references and narrow interpretation. I for one would not want to return to the time when slavery was the tradition, persons of color were blatantly discriminated against, races were not allowed to intermarry, and women were to remain “in their place,” because after all, the Bible was also used to justify these positions.

The notion that marriage should be “protected” is also troubling. Protected from what? Do granting rights and privileges to homosexuals take away rights and privileges currently afforded to heterosexuals? In a recent Bangor Daily News article, one person asked, “Why should we change something that has worked so well since time began?” It has worked well — for those who have benefited by the institution, but not if you have been excluded from it! The institution of marriage has evolved — scripture records as normal multiple marriages, arranged marriages and relationships that we would not describe as loving.

While the thought of a same-sex couple kissing and being in a relationship seems repugnant to many, does that mean that the majority in society get to decide which relationships are recognized by law? Would you want your relationship subject to public vote?

There are those who believe that the Legislature should be concentrating on a host of really important issues. There are many problems facing our state and our nation that deserve attention. But just when would be the “right time” to grant equality? British statesman William Gladstone is quoted as saying “justice delayed is justice denied.”

For me, the bottom line is simply a matter of justice (and there is a host of scriptural text on this issue). Justice has always been, and probably always will be, too important — and in some ways too fragile — to be left to the majority to decide in the voting booth. It takes prophetic action to do what is right. I thank God that the U.S. Congress in the 1960s took action that resulted in civil rights legislation that I believe would not have been enacted had it been left to the majority to vote upon at the time.

Legislating is a matter of debate and compromise for the common good. Perhaps a middle ground might be to distinguish religious and civil marriage. The state should move forward and allow same-sex couples to marry, and the church can sanction and bless those marriages they so choose within their own faith tradition. This separates the civil rights of marriage from the tradition of a religious marriage. Doesn’t our Constitution call for the separation of church and state?

I commend Sen. Damon for pursuing legislation involving a matter of justice — especially during times when there are so many pressing issues on the legislative agenda. An open debate should go forth — without the theology (it’s not fair to apply theological arguments outside one’s own religious community when there are a host of faiths — and those without faith — in the public arena). At the end of the day, I pray that justice is granted to all of Maine’s residents, and that a person’s own religious tradition is upheld as well.

The Rev. Darren L. Morgan of Glenburn is an ordained minister in the United Church of Christ.

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