TALKING TO POLITICIANS: Speaking to Politicians about Equality
Guest Blogger: Andrew Meyer
Feb 10, 2009 at 11:00 am
I have given this problem some thought, and as of now my best answer came to me from a speech delivered by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi during House debates over the so-called “Marriage Protection Amendment.” Rising on the floor to speak, she prefaced her remarks by saying, “As we consider this amendment, we must understand we are talking about our fellow citizens—people under the law…”
These last words hold the key for me- “people under the law.” In addressing elected officials we must strive to continually bring them back to this focus and this responsibility. However solemn and dignified their offices may be, they do not have the right or the authority to view any Americans through the lens of their own preferences and predilections. They are honor-bound to view all Americans (including themselves) first and last as “people under the law,” and to exercise the office we citizens have given them ever-mindful of the constraints that implies.
The first imperative this binds our elected leaders to is to distinguish clearly between the civil and religious institutions of marriage. Different religious groups will always disagree about the rightful parameters of the marital bond. If a church considers divorce a mortal sin, for example, it might like to see the government do away with it as a civil institution. This will not happen, of course, because most Americans recognize that to do so would be grossly unfair to those who do not share in that particular church’s faith (and even to those members of that church who do not elect to be bound by its strictures).
This is thus the question that confronts us as a society: given that all of us hold to different religious notions of marriage, what is a fair basis for civil marriage law? The spiritual benefits of marriage are a matter of personal conscience and confessional deliberation. The legal benefits of marriage are real and objectively quantifiable, however. The Government Accountability Office lists 1,138 benefits, privileges, and rights that flow to an individual as a result of married status under federal law. What is the fair basis for denying those benefits and protections to a citizen of this Republic? If two people avow to love, honor, respect, and care for one another, and they manifest all the signs of mutual fidelity, affection, and responsibility, that are the hallmarks of those commitments, is anyone justified in denying them the protections and benefits of marriage simply because they are of the same gender?
This last question touches upon the second great imperative by which elected officials are bound in viewing all citizens as “people under the law.” Our system is grounded on the principle that there is a reality more fundamental and powerful than the law, forming the bedrock upon which the law is built. That foundation is our rights. Though law is made, rights are discovered. They exist before the law, and as the law is built care must be taken not to injure them. In this regard we must confront our leaders and ask them clearly and deliberately, do you truly believe that two unrelated adults who love one-another do not have the right to marry one-another? The Supreme Court found, in Loving v. Virginia, that that right could not be denied to two people on account of race. What, then, is the logic for denying it on account of gender or sexual orientation?
There has been a great deal of talk about the “sanctity” and “defense” of marriage. The true significance of marriage, however, is lost to many Americans because our culture is so focused on the myth of the “rugged individual” and the “self-made person.” The truth, as so many spiritual leaders and artists have declared (and as I have discovered as a happily married husband and father), is that none of us make ourselves, at least not singly and alone. We come into being through our attachments and our relations to other people, thus our greatest potential for “self-creation” resides in those relationships over which we may exercise some degree of choice. Marriage is the one kinship relationship into which we may enter voluntarily; it thus affords us more power to shape our own identity than any other institution. It is this sense in which marriage to the partner of one’s choice is an inalienable right, one that can not be denied to an individual, even by a vote of the majority. If we can make our elected leaders understand this basic truth, marriage equality will be secured, and we will have advanced one more step along the never-ending search for the “more perfect Union” of which the Constitution speaks.
Andrew Meyer is a professor of Chinese history at Brooklyn College. He and his wife believe in sharing their ideas about equality and a few months ago, he began a blog writing effort targeting congressman at marriageequalityamendment.blogspot.com.