Marriage vs. Civil Unions:
Separate Is Never Equal
By Mary Shaw
10 January, 2010
The New Jersey State Senate recently rejected a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage in the Garden State.
Some people try to justify this state-sponsored discrimination by saying that same-sex marriage isn't necessary in New Jersey because that state offers civil unions for gay couples who want to enjoy similar benefits.
But they don't want to call it marriage. They want to maintain a heterosexual monopoly on the word "marriage". It's "separate but equal", they might say. But I contend that separate is never equal.
Having a separate institution for committed same-sex couples is no more equal than were the black alternatives to the whites-only facilities of the Jim Crow era. True equality is just not possible where you have an "us" vs. "them" dichotomy.
Many people cite religious reasons for opposing marriage equality for same-sex couples. They say that the Bible condemns homosexuality. It's the word of God, they say, and as good "Christians" they must live by it. However, the Bible also condones slavery, and forbids working on the Sabbath under punishment of death. I have yet to see the homophobes in recent decades give equal time to these other "words of God".
But that should be a moot argument anyway in this nation. You see, the religious apologists fail to recognize -- or refuse to recognize -- the fact that the U.S. was not founded as a Christian nation. They conveniently ignore the language of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which explicitly prohibits the government from establishing a religion, and which protects each person's right to practice -- or not practice -- any faith without government interference. In other words, you cannot impose your own religious beliefs on others. So religion is not a sound justification on which to judge the validity of civil marriage.
Some opponents of same-sex marriage like to repeat the tired old talking point that allowing gay couples to wed would destroy the institution of marriage. But they can't really answer the question of how. Anyone who feels that his own heterosexual marriage would be threatened if gays could marry obviously has some very deep personal issues that cannot be fixed through legislation. I know a number of gay couples in loving, monogamous relationships that have lasted much longer than my heterosexual marriage did. Could this be what really scares the bigots?
Why can't the homophobes just live and let live? Why must they point a finger at others and judge what their neighbors can and cannot do in the privacy of their own relationships? How would those homophobes feel if the shoe were on the other foot and someone tried to tell them whom they may or may not marry?
And so I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes on the subject, by James Carville: "I was against gay marriage until I found out I didn't have to have one."
Mary Shaw is a Philadelphia-based writer and activist, with a focus on politics, human rights, and social justice. She is a former Philadelphia Area Coordinator for the Nobel-Prize-winning human rights group Amnesty International, and her views appear regularly in a variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites. Note that the ideas expressed here are the author's own, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Amnesty International or any other organization with which she may be associated. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org