Maine and the nation are likely to become embroiled, yet again, in debate over social and civil rights for homosexuals. This time, the question of whether homosexual couples should be able to marry and enjoy the same rights and privileges as heterosexual couples will be at stake.
In Maine, 120 religious leaders have formed the Religious Coalition for the Freedom to Marry in Maine. Speaking for the group, the Rev. Mark Doty, pastor of Bangor’s Hammond Street Congregational Church said: “We feel a moral obligation at this pivotal time to raise our voices on behalf of Mainers who are denied that most basic human right, the right to marry and form a family with the person of their choice.”
The Maine group is highlighting the legalization of same-sex marriages in Connecticut this month, and marking the fifth anniversary of the Massachusetts court case that allowed gay marriage in the Bay State.
Yet in California, where progressive values typically hold sway and where Democrats won big on Nov. 4, residents approved a referendum that ended the right of same-sex couples to marry.
No clear public consensus is likely to emerge anytime soon.
In part, this is because the institution of marriage is deeply linked to Judeo-Christian religious traditions and values, even though civil benefits such as access to health insurance, hospital visitation rights, inheritance and tax concerns are among the reasons homosexual couples want to marry. Nor is it easy for some to understand marriage apart from the ability, at least in theory, for a couple to procreate. Understood in this way, marriage, as the union of a man and woman, is a basic building block of society.
Stretching tradition so that a new group can be welcomed into the body of rights enjoyed by the majority always has been a struggle. Extending voting rights to women in 1920, granting equal access to education to those of African heritage in the 1950s, and more recently, protecting homosexuals from discrimination in employment, housing and banking all were vigorously debated in their time. Once society has settled the question, the arguments against extending those rights and privileges seem hollow and mean-spirited.
But access to marriage may prove more elusive than the other gains.
Many fundamentalist Christians vehemently oppose same-sex marriage. Yet there is not the same degree of outrage from Christian civic groups over men and women living together and having children without marrying.
Further clouding the debate is the lack of an assertive statement from the nation’s founders on marriage. Rights are delineated for individuals and states in the Constitution, but not for couples or families.
A compromise step would be to separate the civil rights bestowed by the state through marriage from the deeply held religious beliefs about the spiritual union of a man and woman. Couples could seek certificates of marriage consistent with their faith, along with a separate civil union decree granted by the state. Civil unions do not threaten the fabric of society any more than three men and two women forming a limited liability corporation. If the debate steers clear of emotion and focuses on what same-sex couples want to achieve, a resolution is more likely.