Tuesday, February 08, 2011
A TEACHABLE MOMENT: Holy Matrimony vs. Civil Marriage:
OR: Why the Bishop of Rhode Island Gets It So Wrong She Gets It Right
Rhode Island finds itself on the front-lines of the marriage equality battle as the House Judiciary Committee prepares for hearings on a same-sex marriage bill tomorrow (February 9th.) Last week, Bishop Geralyn Wolf, the Episcopal Bishop of Rhode Island, weighed in with a statement to the online publication The Rhode Island Catholic.
It was a statement I frankly had to read a few times before I realized with some amazement that the good bishop had gotten it so stunningly wrong that she actually got it right! Let's take a look:
"As the Episcopal Bishop of the Diocese of Rhode Island, I firmly support the traditional definition of marriage as the union between one male and one female. I believe that Holy Matrimony is a sacred religious rite, whose definition should not be re-interpreted by legislation or civil courts."
OK. This is the part she gets right. Which is NOT to say I agree with her about the "traditional definition of marriage." It IS to say that I also believe that "Holy Matrimony is a sacred religious rite, whose definition should not be re-interpreted by legislation or civil courts."
Not only shouldn't the legislature or courts be messing with sacred religious rites ... THEY CAN'T. See also: The First Amendment -- which guarantees freedom of religion and means we have the freedom within our various and sundry religious traditions to interpret how we define the sacred religious rite we call Holy Matrimony.
Roman Catholic priests have the freedom to refuse to marry previously divorced couples and Orthodox Rabbis have the freedom to refuse to preside at inter-faith weddings. And Bishop Wolf is as entitled to her belief that Holy Matrimony is only between "one male and one female" as I am to mine that the values that a couple bring to a marriage transcend the gender of the couple and that God blesses same and opposite sex marriages equally. How we sort that out together within our religious tradition is up to us to work out -- and in the Episcopal Church we are well and truly knee deep in the process working it out.
But (and it's a BIG "BUT" ...) ... none of that has ANYTHING to do with what the Rhode Island House Judiciary Committee is considering tomorrow.
What the Rhode Island Judiciary Committee is considering tomorrow is whether the equal protection of CIVIL MARRIAGE -- the contract between two people who pledge to love, honor and cherish each other til death do they part -- should be equally extended to both same and opposite sex couples.
Another way to put is: Holy Matrimony = Apple. Civil Marriage = Orange.
So Bishop Wolf gets it right: the state should not be messing with Holy Matrimony. What she gets wrong is that the church shouldn't be messing with Equal Protection.
And here's where she gets it REALLY wrong ... in the second part of her statement:
Legislators could honor the civil rights of all individuals by eliminating the term “marriage” and substituting the term “civil unions.” Religious organizations could then make their own decisions as regards to the recognition or non-recognition of these “unions.”
On first glance, that seems like a kind of radically egalitarian solution that could have some appeal. Eliminate civil marriage altogether -- give everybody civil unions. Except (and it's a BIG "EXCEPT") ... civil unions do not guarantee the more than 1,138 federal rights, protections and responsibilities automatically granted to married heterosexual couples.
So Bishop Wolf -- in a misguided attempt to protect the already-protected-by-the-First Amendment-right to define Holy Matrimony as "the union between one male and one female" -- would take away from all Rhode Island families the protections given by federal marriage rights. Like the right to make decisions in a medical emergency. Like Social security benefits, income and estate tax benefits and disability benefits. Like inheritance rights, parenting rights and ... well, it's a very long list.
Throwing out all those rights, protections and responsibilities in order to "protect" marriage from gay and lesbian couples who both want and deserve equal protection for the life they are building together isn't protecting marriage. It's throwing out the baby out with the bathwater. The people of Rhode Island deserve better. And the Bishop of Rhode Island should know better.