By Joe Hennessy
When the United States Supreme Court released its decision in Obergefell v Hodges, the reaction was swift, passionate and predictably hyperbolic. Major decisions tend to inspire hopes and dreams as well as fear and anger. The reason for this is the false sense that giving anything to anyone can only mean taking it away from someone else. The result of this is the creation of an adversarial mindset which hinders cooperation and compromise. One fundamental error in the debate over marriage equality came from this mindset. The premise in this approach was the belief that civil rights are a finite resource. That if we give rights to everyone there will not be enough to go around. We have had this debate before. As a nation we have expanded the franchise to include freed slaves, women, and individuals between the ages of 18 and 21 and no one was disenfranchised as a result of this expansion.
This brings us to marriage equality. When gays and lesbians began to demand the right to marry in many states, the reactions were often based on anger and fear. There were two dominant themes in the opposition. The first was morality. The argument was simple, “we know this is wrong because our religion tells us it is wrong.” At one time, many members of churches which banned alcohol joined together to fight for prohibition. In the end it was not successful and was repealed. In essence we said, “if alcohol is against your religion, don’t drink.” No one was forced to drink, to sell alcoholic beverages or to serve alcoholic beverages at their church picnics. The proponents of prohibition lost nothing with the repeal. Part of freedom of religion is not being bound by the rules of anyone else’s faith. The purpose of the Constitution, according to the preamble, is not to promote a particular doctrine or set of beliefs but “to promote the common welfare.”
Since the argument that same sex marriage cannot be allowed because “my religion says it’s wrong” was insufficient, the second line of attack was, “it is an infringement on my rights.” Back to the idea that civil rights are limited and if we give them to another group there won’t be enough to go around.
In the surreal world of sound bites and exaggeration that much of the media seems to function in, we witnessed claims that ministers would be forced to perform marriages of which they disapproved. No doubt this was based on the thousands of recorded cases of Catholic priests being compelled by courts to witness marriages of atheists, protestants, Jews, Muslims and divorced or lapsed Catholics. Oh, there were zero recorded or even rumored cases! Churches risk losing their tax exempt status if they don’t perform “gay marriages,” still not seeing that in the decision or in the history. No Catholic church has lost its tax exempt status for refusing to baptize a child because it disapproved of the parents’ lifestyle (even if the scandal of that lifestyle was nothing more than not attending church regularly). In line with the claim that churches would suffer and believers would be punished for their faith was the fear that “real” marriage would suffer if “these kinds” were allowed to call themselves married. How fragile the institution of marriage must be if it can only be sustained by constant reinforcement of the specialness of those who have entered into that state.
The decision was celebrated in the LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgendered) Community. The White House, Niagara Falls and several public sights and monuments were bathed in rainbow lights. For the LGBT community, the celebration should be tinged with caution. The struggle for acceptance and recognition of our rights is not over. In many ways, the struggle will intensify. A backlash is inevitable from those who truly feel threatened as well as from those who claim to feel threatened but in fact just don’t like us.
For gay Catholics, the celebration comes with a degree of sadness. We, gay Catholics are saddened not so much that our church does not respect, accept or approve of our relationships as by the fact that the church has invested so much effort and so many resources in fighting against the civil recognition of our status. When divorced Catholics remarried they did so in civil ceremonies, the church disapproved of those unions, distinguished them from valid, sacramental marriages but still recognized and acknowledged them as marriage.
A final argument was raised by Justice Thomas in his dissent, not about the rights of gay and lesbian persons but about the power of the Supreme Court. Justice Thomas argued that the Court did not have the power to give gays and lesbians the right to marry. In a sense I agree with him. I don’t believe the court gave us anything, the court merely recognized and confirmed a right we already had; that right was subsumed in those with which according to Thomas Jefferson, we were endowed by our creator and which were unalienable.
Joe Hennessy is a president of Dignity Northern Virginia.