No need to swap principles on gay marriage

A few months back, before the issue of same-sex marriage had escalated to a full boil, I found myself uncomfortably unsure of what to think.

I didn't want to conclude that same-sex marriage was good simply because I deeply love some gay people and loathe the ways they've been disrespected and diminished. I didn't want to "jump" to that conclusion merely because I appreciate the partnerships of several gay couples I know well.

I didn't want to advocate a major shift in public policy just for the personal reason that one of my sisters-in-law is lesbian and is doing a great job with my brother of raising their three kids.

I also didn't want to think same-sex marriage was a good idea just because a lot of people I know think so, though on that count I didn't have to worry. A lot of people I know are as waffly as I was.

So I read and listened--on the one hand this, on the other hand that--and kept thinking there was something I just didn't get, some elusive principle that if only I could grasp it would drag me off the teeter-totter and onto solid ground.

And then one day when I wasn't even trying, I finally got it. The simple thing that had eluded me was this:

Marriage is a legal act. Marriage is a religious act. The two are not the same. Religions should be free to define and sanction marriage as they deem proper for their practitioners. But, as even Britney Spears knows, marrying legally in the United States doesn't require a religious marriage. And in a nation built on the principles of equal rights and separation of church and state, it only makes sense that the legal right to marry be available to all citizens.

Why was that so hard? Probably because change is usually hard.

But once the distinction between legal marriage and religious marriage sinks in--really sinks in--it's clear that though same-sex marriage would be a drastic change, that change would be built on bedrock American principles.

Once you get that far, the other objections crumble too.

So marriage has traditionally been the union of a man and a woman? Right. It was also once traditional for a man to consider his wife his property. Slavery and the dehumanizing, racist laws it spawned--say, the ban on interracial marriages--were once tradition too. Tradition is just custom, and customs change as ideas do.

So marriage exists for propagation and child-rearing? If that were its sole goal, we'd have to rule out infertile men, postmenopausal women, couples who don't want children, as well as such admirable married couples as Elizabeth and Bob Dole.

So same-sex marriage would assault the sanctity of marriage? Sanctity is a religious term, best used within the context of religious marriage. Legally, it makes more sense to talk about "responsibility" than "sanctity," and marriage can be one way of making partners more responsible to each other and society.

A couple of Sundays ago, I ran into two friends who've been together for 14 years. They're gay. They're also one of the most affectionate, engaged, engaging couples I know.

We sat and talked for two hours about politics, friends, family. As I watched them walk home side by side up Halsted Street, it seemed absurd to consider their relationship anything but marriage.

"God forbid anything should happen to either one of us," one of them e-mailed the other day, "but when that day does come, they will have to have a team of nurses with AK-47 rifles to keep me away from the hospital room. And if there are any decisions that have to be made, you can be SURE that I'm gonna make them. And it sure ain't fair that gays can't inherit our partner's social security."

We're in the midst of the kind of moral evolution that occurred with the stunningly recent revolutions that acknowledged blacks and women as full humans. Social revolutions are always evolutions. We change a little at a time, one at a time. On the subject of same-sex marriage, an undisputed majority will eventually realize that sharing opportunity doesn't mean losing it. Until then, we'll have to fight.

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