A very civil defense

Posted by Alex Meehan on sbpost.ie:

"Given that homosexuality was decriminalised here only in 1993, it might sound surprising to hear a leading US human rights lawyer state that Ireland is showing international leadership in the public acceptance of gay rights.

"However, according to Evan Wolfson, the fact that civil partnership is set to be enacted into law here next year means that is exactly what is happening.

‘‘'In Ireland, around 70 per cent of people are in favour of full and equal access to marriage, so it’s now up to the politicians to catch up with public opinion and make that law,' Wolfson says. ‘'In the US, we also have politicians who need to catch up, but the difference is that it’s only been this year that we finally saw research showing a majority of American people supporting the freedom to marry.'

"'That was an important milestone, and it shows we’re on the right path.'

"Wolfson is founder and executive director of Freedom to Marry, a non-profit organisation in the US that advocates the legalisation of marriage for same-sex couples.

"Widely recognised as one of the most prominent public faces of marriage equality in the US, he has been named as one of the world’s 100 most influential people by Time magazine.

"But while Wolfson, who was in Dublin as a guest of the lobby Group Marriage Equality, lauds the progress that has been made in Ireland so far, he believes there is much more to be done.

‘‘'In some respects, Ireland is ahead of the US - you now have a law that acknowledges gay families and couples, and begins to provide some very important protections and responsibilities,' he says.

‘‘'It’s far short of what those families need and deserve - which is the same protection and inclusion of marriage that other families have - but nevertheless it is a national acknowledgment of these families and the beginning of the provision of better protections and responsibilities.'

"'We have nothing like that at all at a federal level in the US.'

"Wolfson’s career has closely followed the breaking wave of public attitudes to homosexuality and civil rights in the US.

... "It wasn’t just in the area of gay rights that Wolfson found himself involved in high-profile legal cases. During his time as a prosecutor in Brooklyn, he also worked on challenging the marital rape exemption, a piece of law at one time common in all parts of the world which had inherited the British legal system.

‘‘'A man could not be prosecuted for raping his wife because he was entitled to take what the law termed as ‘what belongs to him’,' he says.

‘‘'This was part of the so-called traditional definition of marriage. I wound up as a prosecutor getting to challenge that law, writing a brief that ultimately went to the high court of New York and struck down that exemption.'

‘‘'This wasn’t 100 or even 50 years ago: this was in 1984.'

"'That just shows you how long these so-called traditional definitions that we think of as being unacceptable prevailed in law.'

"The idea that women became the legal property of men when they married passed from religious tradition into secular law, and even as recently as the 1980s was being defended by religious voices who asserted that women should subordinate themselves to men.

‘‘'The vast majority of people now feel it is a good thing that this law got changed; the world didn’t end, and society is better off as a result. It just shows you that sometimes, even attitudes thought to be set in stone can change.'

"It is in this context that Wolfson wants people to reconsider their views on the freedom to marry. For a start, he wants them to realise that as far as he’s concerned, there is no religious element to the issue.

‘‘'Firstly, we’re not fighting for gay marriage in Ireland or in the US - what we’re actually fighting for is an end to exclusion from marriage itself,' he says. 'There is a difference.'

‘‘Marriage in the US and here is a legal institution that is regulated by the government, that is created by the issuance of civil licences.

"The government doesn’t issue communion licences or bar mitzvah licenses or whatever, but it does issue marriage licences, because marriage is a legal institution that brings with it a vast array of tangible and intangible consequences.

‘‘'What we’re looking for is an end to the denial of marriage, whether in Ireland or elsewhere, to people who have made a commitment to each other and who want that commitment recognised in law.' Wolfson says he isn’t trying to tell ‘any church, temple, synagogue or mosque’ who they should or shouldn’t marry.

‘‘'But what we are saying is that no church, temple, synagogue or mosque should be dictating to the civil government who can get a marriage licence and enjoy the legal status that goes with that,' he says. 'It’s not about telling any church what to do, it’s about telling the government that it should not be discriminating against some of its citizens.'

‘‘'When people bring up religion as a reason to oppose equal justice under the law, I ask them to really dig deep into their religious values and ask themselves what those values teach.'

"'They teach respect for love and respect for commitment.'

‘‘'Ending the denial of marriage imposes nothing on anyone else, but it allows people who have made a commitment to each other to live lives that strengthens society and the world around them.'”

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