On the Right Side of History on Gay Marriage

John Stumme, left, kisses his husband Kyle Hanson in the state capitol’s rotunda immediately after the Minnesota Senate passed a bill making Minnesota the 12th state in the country to legalize gay marriage May 13, 2013. (Courtney Perry)

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.

  • James Love

    Tony…known about you a long time, never really taken the opportunity to read you until today. I’ll admit I came to the blog namely because the title of the blog did not sit right with me. That said, your stance did. I am for full rights for the LGBTQ community. I am with the Lutheran minister who decided that we cannot enforce our faith on others outside of our community. So, I am glad to see that the title did not really reflect what it could have meant, which is a culture that is obsessed with being right with little regard for what it really means. So…job well done on the blog.

  • http://twitter.com/DarrellMuth Darrell Muth

    Ah Tony. The rarest of Christ Followers. A Progressive making claims of certainty. That in Itself is refreshing.

  • D.J.

    TOTALLY celebrating with you! I am ecstatic about Minnesota, happy for you and Courtney, and thankful for your advocacy!

  • Sven2547

    Too often, the loudest voices among Christians are the irrational, the spiteful, and the egotistical. As a non-Christian, I am often baffled by the stark dichotomy between the far-right brand of Christianity™, and the sensible, rational, kind Christians who compose the majority of my friends and family. It’s refreshing to know that there are still good Christians out there who walk the talk on the important themes of the Bible (love, inclusion, salvation, etc), rather than obsessing over Old-Testament obscura. It’s what separates decent people from iron-age cattle-sacrificing barbarians.

    In many hot-button political issues, there are two sides to the story. There are rich and legitimate debates to be had on abortion, capital punishment, tax rates, the use of military force, and on and on and on. Marriage equality really isn’t one of those. Every single so-called argument to ban same-sex marriage is based on either lies, fallacies, or a deep misunderstanding of how the laws of a free society work. Sadly (annoyingly, infuriatingly), the one factor that unites the marriage-inequality crowd more than any other thing is their religion. Like it or not, that right-wing baleful irrational Christianity™ is still the biggest foe to marriage equality today, and it will continue to be going forward. They’ll cling to their Bibles and their PRATT* and their jingoistic memes long after marriage equality is realized nationwide. There’s no low they won’t stoop to, no rhetorical lengths they won’t pursue, no bar they won’t slither under.

    Keep on fighting the good fight, Tony.

    *Points Refuted A Thousand Times (one of my favorite acronyms)

  • Craig

    “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.”

    You might be right Tony, but not because of your terrible argument. To keep the parallel you need, you’d have to affirm something much more dubious. Either: that one can be a fully empowered citizen of the U.S. without having the right to marry. Or: that one cannot be a fully empowered citizen without actually voting (even if one still possess the right to do so). These differences can be important. You wouldn’t want to deny that one could be a fully empowered citizen without living past the age of 80. But you wouldn’t want to affirm that one could be a fully empowered citizen without having the right to live past 80.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Mike-Croghan/588166801 Mike Croghan

    :-D

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