26 June 2013

The Big No-Brainer

A few brief (I hope) words about today's Supreme Court decision regarding the unconstitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act.

It has seemed obvious to me from the beginning of the debate on this matter, all those years ago, that a federal law (1) allowing states not to recognize the valid marriage laws of other states and (2) denying federal benefits to a discrete group of people based on an immutable characteristic, e.g., sexual orientation, was clearly unconstitutional.

(1) The Full Faith and Credit clause of the U.S. Constitution requires each state to respect the others' laws. Thus, my husband and I were married in New York City, but when we bought a house jointly in New Jersey the following year, we didn't have to get married again. Our marriage followed us across the border, as of course it should. New Jersey must (and does) recognize a valid marriage solemnized in New York.

(2) Sexual orientation is an immutable characteristic - one that can't be changed by choice. I was born with brown eyes. I can wear colored contact lenses to make myself look blue-eyed, but that would be a temporary mask of my true genetic makeup. I got my dad's brown eyes, and there's nothing I can do about it. (Or want to do about it, actually.) Homosexuals have been discriminated against for millenia - if it were a choice, why would someone choose to belong to a group so reviled throughout history?

Just as Congress can't single out brown-eyed people and deny them tax exemptions, they can't single out gay people and deny them benefits and rights to which everyone else is entitled.

And a quick few words about marriage. Marriage means many things to many people. We are not talking here about the Catholic Church's definition of marriage, which is a narrow one. Their marriage is a holy sacrament performed by an ordained priest in a church, uniting a man to a woman for as long as they both continue to be alive. They (and many other conservative groups) don't formally recognize anything else as marriage.

But, of course, our Catholic friends don't claim that my husband and I, who were married in the Episcopal Church, aren't really married. Or that our Jewish friends who've been married for decades in their own tradition are somehow living in sin.  That's because marriage is often a religious rite, but it is also something else. It is a civil contract, entered into by two people, which demonstrates their commitment to each other for life. It is about love, usually, but it is also about economics. Married people can open joint bank accounts, buy houses jointly with right of survivorship, inherit each other's estates free of taxes, adopt children together as a unit, and visit each other in the hospital at all hours. I don't think anyone would seriously challenge my right to own a house jointly with my husband because I wasn't married in their religious tradition.

When you get married in a religious ceremony in most states in the U.S., you also have to get a civil marriage license, and your officiant, licensed to perform marriages by the state, signs that in addition to your religious certificate. If your officiant isn't duly licensed in the jurisdiction in which you throw your party, you need to get married separately by the state in order for it to be legal. Everyone who has ever gotten married in the United States, or performed a marriage here, knows this.

Marriage is a universally-recognized legal status. You can be considered legally married, and enjoy all the legal benefits of that relationship, even if you never set foot in a house of worship. Lots of people do it every day.

And - this will come as a surprise to a lot of young people and unmarried people that I know - but marriage is not primarily about sex. I mean, after the first few weeks, of course. It is about teamwork and companionship, and running a household. It is about daily life that was once Separate and is now Together. It sometimes becomes about raising children, but even if there are no children, there's still a whole lot of "which movie do you want to see" and "what should we have for dinner" and "I don't think we can afford to get the stove fixed this week." There are finances and negotiations and doing things you don't want to do because they're important to your spouse. It's about loyalty and commitment and meeting each other halfway.

And if someone loves someone of the same gender so much that they want to make that commitment and live that life, and be there for each other, and if a state says they can, then the federal government can't say they can't.

A friend recently told me that he thinks homosexuality is "unnatural" and "spreads disease" and therefore should not be condoned in any form by the state. I didn't remind him that the "disease" of which he was thinking, and many more, are also spread by heterosexual contact, and that marriage of any sort that involves an exclusive physical commitment actually reduces the chances of catching and spreading anything that's sexually transmitted. Because when people make up their mind that they're against something on religious grounds, there's no convincing them that they're wrong. In fact, they're entitled to their religious beliefs. They're just not entitled to discriminate civilly because of those beliefs.

So I applaud today's decision, which seems to me to have been a no-brainer. It does not, of course, seem that way to everyone, including four members of the Court itself. But neither did interracial marriage, a generation ago, seem to be a no-brainer, and I think the analysis is the same.

The world is not going to crumble to pieces because a woman who inherited her wife's estate can now claim an exemption from estate taxes. No one will be forced to marry someone they don't want to marry, and no religious institution will be forced to perform marriages it doesn't want to perform. But some people will be entitled to live in peace with the person of their choice, to make a life and a home together, and to enjoy the civil benefits of that life.

And if someone's life can be improved, I'm in favor of it.

1 comment:

Justine Levine said...

Beautifully put. And I appreciate the legal perspective on it, as well as the ideological one ... anything else IS unconstitutional.

And yet: it feels like a momentous step forward for us today. Not that it will change the way some people think, unfortunately ... just as the civil rights movement couldn't, in and of itself, change minds ... but still, hopeful.