Who Accepts What Marriage?

The great film director John Ford was a religious Catholic who, as a young man, fell in love with a Protestant divorcee. Since Ford’s church didn’t approve of the union, they married elsewhere. (Decades later, after she had converted and her first husband died, they finally got their church wedding.)

Excuse me while I go way off this blog’s usual topic, but I need a forum to get something off my chest.

No reasonable American could object to the Catholic Church’s First Amendment right to oppose the sanctity of a particular  marriage. But by the same token, no reasonable American would argue that, since the Catholic Church says that these two particular people cannot marry, the state must also deny their right. Non-Catholic Americans who have divorced and remarried–a group that includes Ronald Reagan, John McCain, and myself–would certainly object.

As long as we’ve had a constitution, churches and synagogues have refused to marry people for one reason or another, and it has never been a public controversy. Why? Because those people could easily marry in another church or synagogue, or by a justice of the peace.

Somehow, this workable and easily understood American tradition goes out the window when the marriage involves two brides or two grooms. It need not do so. If your church or synagogue refused to perform gay weddings before the California Supreme Court’s May decision, it can still refuse to do so and will continue to have that right if Proposition 8 fails.

And by the same token, if your religious institution performed gay weddings before May (as my synagogue did), it will continue to do so if Proposition 8 passes. In America, we’ve always had a legal institution called marriage, and a religious/social one. They’ve never had to agree with each other.

Yes, I’ve heard all the arguments about preserving “traditional marriage,” as if a constantly evolving institution as old as the human species couldn’t t survive gay weddings. (Has anyone noticed that one of the groups fighting to protect “traditional marriage,” the Mormons, once supported polygamy?) In recent decades, other social changes have threatened “traditional marriage,” including racially mixed marriages and gender equality. Somehow, the institution has not only survived but thrived.

It’s worth noting that last May’s decision wasn’t the first time the California Supreme Court ignored the will of the people and attacked “traditional marriage.” Sixty years ago, in Perez v. Sharp, the Court legalized racially-mixed marriages in California. That they weren’t legal before that seems downright embarrassing today. If Proposition 8 passes, our Californian grandchildren will have another cause of embarrassment.