Bangor Daily News, June 1, 2006
By Marvin M. Ellison
Recently, I traveled to Washington, D.C.,
as a delegate for Clergy for Fairness,
an interfaith group working nationally
and locally to oppose discrimination and
promote religious liberty.
More than 30 religious leaders from 10 states
gathered on Capitol Hill to speak out
against proposed legislation that would
amend the U.S. Constitution to restrict
marriage to heterosexual couples only.
Because my faith tradition affirms marriage
equality, both the moral and legal equality
of marriage partners and the freedom of
same-sex couples to marry on the same
basis as different-sex couples, I'm committed
to defeat any legislation that would write
discrimination into law or infringe unnecessarily
upon the free exercise of religion.
Defining marriage is not the state's business.
Each religious tradition should be free
to decide, based on its own teachings,
whether to recognize and bless the union
of any couple, including the unions of
same-sex couples. Moreover, it is not
the federal government's role to prefer
one religious definition of marriage or
impose that definition on all by codifying
this preference into the Constitution.
By so doing, the government would also be
offering some American families access
to more than 1,000 federal benefits, such
as health care, hospital visitation, and
family medical leave, while denying equal
access to other American families. That's
unfair and wrong.
The so-called Federal Marriage Protection
amendment is big trouble. For the first
time in U.S. history, a constitutional
amendment would be used to restrict, not
expand, the rights of an entire group
of citizens. Moreover, it's not difficult
to recognize that this amendment is a
crass, politically motivated attempt in
an election year to whip up voters by
reinforcing prejudice against a stigmatized
Finally, this legislation tries to prematurely
"settle" an important moral
debate now under way within diverse faith
traditions. It represents a sledgehammer
approach to resolving hotly contested
social issues. The Constitution should
not be misused this way.
My defense of marriage equality is rooted
not only in constitutional principles,
but even more in the core Christian values
of love and justice. The freedom to love
and be loved defines what it means to
be human. Marriage is a primary way many
people choose to exercise this precious
freedom, by entering into a committed
covenantal relationship with the person
they identify as their closest intimate
and next of kin.
To deny this freedom to love and, yes, marry
the person of one's choosing is dehumanizing,
oppressive, and, I would add, sinful.
Denying this freedom to same-sex couples
is also sacrilegious, given the long-standing
religious insight that wherever there
is covenantal love, there is God.
From a justice perspective, defending the
right of same-sex couples to marry, both
civilly and religiously, is a way to honor
the humanity of gay and lesbian persons.
In this regard, it is important to note
how various groups in U.S. history have
been denied the freedom to marry, including
slaves and, as recently as the mid-1970s,
In the 1980s, the U.S. Supreme Court declared
that marriage is such a fundamental human
right that not even prisoners on death
row should be denied this freedom, even
if they would not be able to "consummate"
their marriages. In 1999, the Vermont
Supreme Court, in ruling in favor of marriage
equality for same-sex couples, concluded,
"When all is said and done, this
is about our common humanity." In
2003, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial
Court in its Goodrich decision said much
the same thing. Granting the freedom to
marry to same-sex couples may be a change
in practice, the court said, but it is
not a change in values.
In Christian perspective, marriage serves
three good purposes: intimate bonding
between two persons, the sharing of economic
resources, and the nurturing of children.
Same-sex couples can and do fulfill these
three purposes. In recognition of this
fact, the United Church of Christ has
adopted a resolution in favor of marriage
equality and affirmed that "all people
have the right to lead lives that express
love, justice, mutuality, [and] commitment."
This church also has urged people "to
work against legislation, including constitutional
amendments, which [would deny] civil marriage
rights to couples based on gender."
First, because it's unjust, unloving and
wrong to deny same-sex couples and their
families legal recognition (and religious
blessing). Second, because the gender
of the persons in intimate relationship
is irrelevant. It's irrelevant morally.
It's irrelevant spiritually. And it should
be irrelevant legally. What matters is
not the gender configuration, but rather
the moral quality of their relationship.
As a clergyperson, I've performed weddings
for heterosexual couples, and I've officiated
at services for same-sex couples. I grant
you that these couples may have looked
different, but they were engaging in exactly
the same practice: making sacred promises
to love and support each another, in good
times and in bad, and seeking their community's
blessing and ongoing support to journey
together on this risky, yet life-enhancing
In a pluralistic church and society, the
challenge before us is this: How do we
provide the respect and material security
needed to support strong, vibrant families,
some of which are gay and lesbian families?
Discrimination does not, cannot and will
never protect or enhance the institution
of marriage. Only justice and equality
under the law can truly protect marriage,
demonstrate genuine respect for our common
humanity and keep all our families safe
Marvin M. Ellison is Willard S. Bass
Professor of Christian Ethics at Bangor
Theological Seminary. An ordained minister,
he is author of "Same-Sex Marriage?
A Christian Ethical Analysis."
Professor Ellison is also a Participating
Scholar in The Religious Consultation.