I realize that it is a grandiose claim to say that, regarding marriage equality, I stand on the right side of history. But that’s exactly what I felt as I stood in the rotunda of the Minnesota State Capitol and held vigil with thousands of others as the State Senate debated HF 1054, extending the right to marry to same sex couples. At 4:19pm, it passed 37-30, and today at 5pm, Governor Mark Dayton will sign it into law.
I stood alongside Doug Pagitt, Jay Bakker, and Russell Rathbun, fellow (straight, white, male) Minnesota clergymen who also support marriage equality. Dozens of clergy were in the crowd, based on the number of clerical shirts I saw. Many of them stood in the middle, leading songs — we were along the edge of the crowd, greeting people we know. Also there were Courtney with her camera (see above), Wendy Johnson and her daughter, our friends Bryan and Scott, and other friends and acquaintances. We were receiving news about the speeches inside the Senate chambers via text message and Twitter.
Marriage equality is a civil rights issue.
In my opinion, it is not on par with women’s suffrage or the Civil Rights Act. That’s because the right to vote is paramount in a democracy — it’s more important than the right to marry. Voting is the cornerstone of our entire system. The other freedoms ensured by the Bill of Rights (religion, press, assembly, speech, etc.) are similarly of overriding importance. Marriage simply does not rise to that level. One can be a fully empowered citizen of the United States without being married, and that cannot be said about the right to cast a vote.
However, we have heavily incentivized marriage in our culture. According to one count, there are 515 benefits that accrue to married persons in Minnesota state law — and that doesn’t even include federal or city statutes. You get tax breaks if you’re married, you get to pass on your estate to your legal spouse, you get to visit your legal spouse in the hospital. Indeed, you cannot even be compelled to testify against your spouse in a trial — in legalese, that’s referred to as “spousal privilege,” a telling phrase indeed.
In his Strib column today, Jon Tevlin tells of how one state legislator — a clergyman — decided on his vote:
In the hours before the historic vote that gave same-sex Minnesotans the right to marry, people filled the State Capitol cafeteria and gathered around several televisions tuned to the debate going on above them. They cheered and clapped whenever someone made a point on the side of gay marriage.
No one seemed to notice the Lutheran minister who walked through the crowd with his lunch.
The week before, that man, Rep. Tim Faust, DFL-Hinckley, stood on the House floor and told his colleagues, and eventually the world, that he had changed his mind.
Faust comes from a district where gay marriage is not popular. But in his emotional speech, he explained why he decided to vote in favor of the legislation.
Faust said he’d had conversations with constituents about the law, and almost every time they brought up the Bible as a reason to vote no.
“And so if this is the reason or the rationale for being opposed to this or for why this law is currently in place,” Faust said during the emotional floor debate, “the question that keeps going through my mind over and over again is, ‘Do we as a society have the right to impose our religious beliefs on somebody else?’”
The answer, of course, is no. The rights to assemble, bear arms, have a free press, and vote are not biblical. They are based on the political philosophy of John Locke, as embraced and codified by Thomas Jefferson.
Marriage, of course, is a trickier issue. The Bible does have lots to say about sex, which is (usually) a part of marriage. Nevertheless, when the state takes up the issue of marriage, religion must be relativized. To see just how that is done, I encourage you to take nine minutes and watch the one speech from the state senate floor yesterday that mattered, below. It’s by Branden Petersen, the lone Republican who voted in favor of the marriage bill. In his speech, he speaks about why he broke with his party and voted against the sentiments of the majority of his constituents.
Petersen is a libertarian, and he speaks eloquently and logically about how his vote is based primarily on the equal protection clause of the 14th amendment. He argues that Thomas Jefferson advocated for the protection of freedom of religion, a mutable aspect of human existence — so how much more important to protect the freedom to marry the one you love, a less mutable aspect of human existence.
Petersen says his vote was about liberty. Never once does he appeal to a religious argument.
Now, I’m a theologian. My arguments about marriage are wrapped in theological, biblical, and philosophical assumptions. Those arguments, too, have a place in the public square, but they don’t hold a trump card. Not in a democracy, they don’t.
In July, 2011, Courtney and I were married in our church. But we decided not to get legally married, forgoing the benefits that accrue to legally married couples until our gay and lesbian friends could be granted those same benefits. Honestly, I thought it would be many years before marriage equality would come to Minnesota. I am thrilled that it’s come so soon, so quickly, and so decisively. We look forward to celebrating with our friends this August.
I hope that many of you readers will celebrate with us.