Do the Right Thing, New York!

I wrote in May about the legalization of civil unions in Delaware (which has now been signed into law), and the ongoing push to pass a marriage-equality law in my own state, New York. Although New York already recognizes same-sex marriages performed in any of the neighboring states that allow them, passage of the bill would be a huge symbolic victory and would give more momentum to the national push for equality.

As I write this, the bill hangs in the balance in the State Senate, where Republicans hold a 32-to-30 majority. Three of the Democrats who voted against it last time have changed their positions, making Sen. Ruben Diaz Sr. of the Bronx the lone Democratic holdout (unsurprisingly, he’s an ordained minister). Two Republicans have also announced they’ll switch their votes to yes, leaving us just one vote short, and several others have suggested they may change their minds. By the time you read this, we may know what the outcome is. (And if we don’t, and you’re a New Yorker, call your senator!)

What’s most noteworthy about this story is the wavering and uncertainty of the Republicans, who sense that gay-bashing is losing its force as a touchstone culture-war issue. Equality is becoming the accepted position, and the vocal bigots are dwindling in number. On the other hand, some groups are firmly cementing their stand on the wrong side of history. Chief among them is New York Archbishop Timothy Dolan, who said about the proposal:

Last time I consulted an atlas, it is clear we are living in New York, in the United States of America – not in China or North Korea. In those countries, government presumes daily to “redefine” rights, relationships, values, and natural law. There, communiqués from the government can dictate the size of families, who lives and who dies, and what the very definition of “family” and “marriage” means.

This confused diatribe would have a point if the government was forcing citizens into same-sex marriages who didn’t want them. But it’s completely clear, to everyone except head-in-the-sand bigots like the archbishop, that the push for marriage equality is coming from the people: human beings who seek the freedom to pledge their commitment to each other and receive the same legal rights and protections granted to opposite-sex couples. Passing marriage equality isn’t “dictating” anything to anyone, but legitimizing the choice already made by millions of people in love, which is already real regardless of whether the Catholic church admits it.

But in one respect, the archbishop is more right than he knows: we do indeed live in the United States of America, a secular republic whose governing authority comes from we the people, not from holy books or churches who presume to speak for God. The analogy he uses is completely backwards: it’s the religious groups, like the archbishop himself, who wish to act as an omnipotent, absolute authority dictating to the rest of us how we may live our lives, how large our families may be, how we may be born and how we may die. In that sense it’s the anti-gay bigots, not supporters of marriage equality, who resemble the despotic tyrants of China and North Korea.

Marriage is not simply a mechanism for delivering benefits: It is the union of a man and a woman in a loving, permanent, life-giving union to pro-create children.

This is farcical, false, and historically illiterate. Procreation is not a precondition of marriage. We don’t test prospective partners for fertility or make them sign an affidavit declaring their intention to have children, nor have we ever.

And as the learned archbishop should know, marriage as the union of “a man and a woman” is a recent development. In many times and places, including in his own Bible, marriage has been defined as the union of a man and one or more women, and often in the manner of the man as the purchaser and women as the property. We’ve changed this to make marriage more like a partnership of equals, and instituting marriage equality will approach this ideal closer still.

Before we consign the archbishop to history’s dustbin, one more quote:

Yes, I admit, I come at this as a believer, who, along with other citizens of a diversity of creeds believe that God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage a long time ago.

Although it’s nothing we didn’t know already, it’s nice to hear confirmation that opposition to marriage equality is purely religious in nature and has no secular justification. The Catholic church, like all religious fiefdoms, can set whatever rules it wishes for its own members. But its writ extends no further than the church walls. It has no right to enact its peculiar prejudices into law and demand that everyone else be forced to live by them. That’s the meaning of living in a secular nation, which is something that the Catholic church and all other aspiring theocrats in New York will, I hope, find out soon enough.

EDIT (6/24): Tonight, love won. Congratulations, New York!

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • NoAstronomer

    Even if I did believe in god I still wouldn’t go to church – because the priests (imans, preachers etc) are all such bloody morons. Seriously, I’ve never met a priest who wasn’t basically as dumb as a rock. If not dumber.

  • sal64

    “or make them sign an affidavit declaring their intention to have children”:
    to be precise, on this particular aspect the RC church is at least consistent: willingness to have children has to be declared during the ceremony, and proof of fraud on this aspect is sufficient for canonical annulment, i.e. a ruling that the (religious) marriage actually was never real.

  • NoAstronomer

    @sal64

    I found this article on the BBC website quite illuminating, and humorous. It’s about the increasing number of ‘annulments’ in the Philippines, where the law does not allow for divorce, and an ongoing debate on whether divorce should be legal:

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-pacific-13611795

    The upshot is that most of the population does not favor changing the law to provide for divorces – because they’re quite happy getting annulments.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    Marriage is not simply a mechanism for delivering benefits: It is the union of a man and a woman in a loving, permanent, life-giving union to pro-create children.

    What a bunch of B.S. I know married couples who have expressed absolutely no desire to have children at all. Then, there are seniors who get married, like my uncle and his second wife several years ago, both in their mid to late 60′s.

  • Mark C.

    Although it’s nothing we didn’t know already, it’s nice to hear confirmation that opposition to marriage equality is purely religious in nature and has no secular justification.

    There might be no good secular justification, but there is secular opposition to marriage equality. My father is among such opposition. I say this just to point out that while it’s probably primarily religion that we’re fighting, it’s not solely religion.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    BTW, I just called my state senator, Carl Marcellino, and told his staff person that I support marriage equality in New York.

  • Mark V

    Just once I would like their bluff to be called.

    Just once I would like a state to say:
    “You’re right. It’s purely religious. As a result we are proposing a bill to eliminate all of the legal benefits of marriages and civil unions along with the same. If you want any of those things, please see a lawyer.”

    I think everyone would be pretty clear on exactly how “religious” marriage really is extremely quickly.

  • Andrew T.

    What are these secular arguments against marriage equality? I ask because I’ve never heard any…unless “I don’t like it” counts as an argument.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    to be precise, on this particular aspect the RC church is at least consistent: willingness to have children has to be declared during the ceremony, and proof of fraud on this aspect is sufficient for canonical annulment, i.e. a ruling that the (religious) marriage actually was never real.

    I’ve never heard of this and it definitely didn’t happen at my wedding. I was married in a RC church (wife is Catholic and has pretty religious parents) and we did not make any such declaration. We both decided before marriage that we would adopt rather than make our own babies so we would’ve noticed something like that in there. If anything, there may have been something in there about supporting each other in the raising of any of our children, but nothing about birthing them.

  • sal64

    @NoAstronomer: the real problem with this argument is that if you say that marriage is void if you don’t have children, then you might be “tempted” to conclude that Mary and Joseph did not have a valid marriage (since she was virgin, therefore she didn’t have children with Joseph); how this is “resolved” is beyond me, only a jesuit can explain it….

    @OverlappingMagisteria: it certainly happened at my marriage, and all the others I have witnessed, you are asked if you are “open to life” meaning that you plan to have children. The only time this did not happen was when two elderly people (both in their 70s) married when they were biologically past having children. That is, if BOTH are RCs. If your wife is, but you are not, then maybe you had a “mixed” marriage, and the rules there might be slightly different

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    What are these secular arguments against marriage equality?

    “Natural Law” is sometimes offered as a secular argument against gay marriage. Basically the “natural” purpose of sex is procreation, therefore gay sex is wrong. It’s an obviously terrible argument (ie. the natural use of our feet is walking, therefore pushing gas pedals is wrong) but its the best they have. It makes a lot of unfounded assumptions but I don’t think its religious, as it doesn’t invoke any gods.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    @sal64: Maybe my marriage was the oddball then. Come to think of it, the priest that performed the ceremony is pretty liberal. (I think he might even support the ordination of women, or that the very least, didn’t think them to be as bad as child molesters. Gasp! Heretic!)

  • David Hart

    Andrew T: Funny you should mention it – I have on several occasions had arguments with my grandfather on not just the merits of marriage equality (I live in the UK where we have civil partnerships, equivalent to marriage in all but name, except that unlike heterosexual marriages, you can’t have the ceremony in a church, you have to have a secular ceremony at the registrar’s office), but also the permissibility of being gay in the first place. He is, so far as I can tell, agnostic – he seems to be genuinely neutral on the question of whether God exists, so his dislike of gays and gay marriage does indeed boil down to ‘because I don’t like it’. Except that he has argued that by forbidding gay relationships we’d actually be doing the gays a favour, because if they are compelled into straight relationships, they’d discover what they’d been missing and decide they liked that better. *facepalm*…

    Still, maybe those organisations offering turn-you-straight psychotherapy ought to try it, and start providing a hetero-only escort service to their clients, and see what effect that has on their success rate.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    I trust you and your readers have commented at the bishop’s blog to give him a piece of your mind.

    I have.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Tommykey at 4.

    You wrote,

    I know married couples who have expressed absolutely no desire to have children at all. Then, there are seniors who get married, like my uncle and his second wife several years ago, both in their mid to late 60′s.

    Once upon a time, when Christian traditional ethics had a much stronger grip on the common moral consciousness, Bertrand Russell felt the need to write an essay in defense of such couples.

    Such marriages were called, back then, “companionate marriages.”

    It was a hot moral issue.

    No kidding.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    OverlappingMagisteria at 11.

    Natural law is actually an ancient pagan idea, popular especially among the Stoics though it has roots in Aristotle, as well.

    All the same, the church’s understanding of it is based on Aquinas’s rehabilitation in his Treatise on Law.

    And as to the judgment that the natural law forbids divorce, for example, that was a Christian innovation.

    Arguably, pretty much everything the Catholics profess to find in the natural law was imported into it by the church to square with moral commitments that historically, psychologically, and institutionally originated with Jerusalem, not Athens.

    So I think we are still on safe ground insisting that in fact the traditional Christian views of marriage and sex really do have their origins in religion, regardless of what they claim about the Natual Law.

  • Andrew T.

    Word is that the marriage bill may not be voted on until next week. I’m cautiously optimistic that the bill will make it to the floor and pass, but the suspense is killing me.

  • Stephen P

    Yes, I admit, I come at this as a believer, who … believe that God, not Albany, has settled the definition of marriage a long time ago.

    Just produce some evidence that this God is anything other than a fantasy, anything other than a sock-puppet to be trotted whenever convenient.

  • Kaelik

    @ Overlapping Magesteria.

    Most any modern conception of natural law is based on a God of some kind, ancient natural law was based on platonic ideal forms but if anyone in the modern day presents a natural law argument, that’s pretty much going to be religious.

    Not that natural law is different from saying X is natural. It’s explicitly a teleological reference to higher purpose.

  • Alex Weaver

    There might be no good secular justification, but there is secular opposition to marriage equality. My father is among such opposition. I say this just to point out that while it’s probably primarily religion that we’re fighting, it’s not solely religion.

    You don’t seriously think your father would have formed that opinion in a culture not polluted with religiously-inspired homophobia, do you?

  • Charles Black

    Even if the RC Church allowed gay marriage tomorrow & stopped child pedophilia I would still never forgive them because their actions are so vile that I think forgiveness is not a good thing. In this case forgiving them would be rewarding them for letting them get away with this behaviour for the last 2 millenia or so.

  • Mark C.

    You don’t seriously think your father would have formed that opinion in a culture not polluted with religiously-inspired homophobia, do you?

    Not at all, you’re right (and he wasn’t always an atheist, so there’s more fuel). As much as I’d like to, though, I can’t dismiss something on those grounds, since no one arrives at all of their important opinions in a cultural vacuum. Not surprisingly, however, I have yet to hear a justification from him that doesn’t amount to some variation of “yuck” or “it’s bad for kids and/or families” (assuming my memory is fine).

  • Fumio Takeshi

    This people, this!

    Must Watch!: David Tyree (Ex NY Giant) “Gay Marriage Will Lead To Anarchy” [Video]

    You all want to destroy our society. Damn you GHEYS!

  • Fumio Takeshi

    This people, this!

    Must Watch!: David Tyree (Ex NY Giant) “Gay Marriage Will Lead To Anarchy

    You all want to destroy our society. Damn you GHEYS!

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Kaelik at 19 and Gracchus an 16:
    Agreed. Natural law has religious roots and I rarely see it used outside of a religious context, but it can be constructed without religion. I have seen it claimed to be a secular argument in the past, and unless you want to categorize the premise “natural = good, unnatural = bad” as religious, it can be a secular argument.

    Overall, it’s irrelevant since natural law is total BS anyway.

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    Overlappingmagisteria at 25.

    Overall, it’s irrelevant because only a minority of relatively learned Catholics (and they are all such frauds, except for maybe Germain Grisez) would think to base their God given hatred of the whole sexual revolution on such a pinhead notion and not God’s own Word in the Bible, as just anybody can thump it.

  • assclown

    So I just stumbled upon conservapedia today (maybe I’ve lived under a rock?) but I had a good chuckle at their view on the “homosexual agenda”

    http://www.conservapedia.com/Homosexual_agenda

    I’ll quote this biggest laugh I had;
    “Among all the liberal belief systems, the homosexual ideology is the most self-centered or selfish. Liberals generally give much less than conservatives to charity, but gay charity work in particular is virtually non-existent.”

  • http://ggracchus.blogspot.com/ Gaius Sempronius Gracchus

    An “encyclopedia” devoted entirely to angry, stupid bigotry.

  • http://anexerciseinfutility.blogspot.com Tommykey

    but gay charity work in particular is virtually non-existent.

    Yeah, because we all no gays didn’t do any charity work in response to the AIDS crisis.

  • Alex Weaver

    Either they’re practicing the selfservative sacrament of lying again, or they’re only counting “charity” as “donations to ‘conservative’ churches.”