If you haven’t been sleeping under a rock for the last two weeks, you’ll know that the CEO of Chick-Fil-A, Dan Cathy, caused an uproar by publicly speaking out in favor of “traditional marriage.” This occurred a short time after Barack Obama publicly came out in favor of gay marriage. After reading a few articles on the matter and participating in a lengthy discussion on Facebook concerning the issue, I feel like Christians supporting “traditional marriage” in our country are missing an important point.
First, let’s clarify a few things: marriage is a legal institution in our current state. While it may have started as a religious bond, the institution has been co-opted by the state to extend a number of legal benefits to those participating in it—marriages are registered with states, afford participants a number of legal protections, and are subsequently dissolved by the state. These legal benefits include, but are not limited to, issues of medical consent, property management and inheritance, and mandated spousal medical coverage through employers and insurance companies. Same-sex couples are not often afforded spousal benefits and, even if they are, there are thousands of dollars of legal paperwork required to acquire legal protections equivalent to a (very cheap) marriage license concerning medical consent and inheritance. Let’s not even get started on many states outlawing same-sex adoption.
Put very bluntly, same-sex couples are not being afforded equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the 14th amendment. Period. Full stop. Denying them the legal protections afforded by the institution of marriage is a blatant violation of their constitutional rights. Even if one were to engineer an equivalent “civil union,” we need to remember that separate is not equal.
In some strange turn, Christians in support of “traditional” marriage have turned this around to suggest that, in demanding same-sex couples receive equal protection under the law, their religious freedom as guaranteed by the first amendment is being somehow compromised. Just for clarification, the first amendment prevents the government from mandating an official “state religion.” This has since been extended to guarantee individuals religious freedoms, up to a certain point (animal sacrifice and the use of illegal substances in religious rites remain sticky and difficult, for instance).
The point I feel that is being missed by the proponents of “traditional” marriage here is that they’re effectively abusing their position as the majority in our union to deprive same-sex couples of equal protection under the law. Framing this in a religious freedom context is disingenuous in the extreme. Same-sex couples aren’t pushing for a federal law requiring all churches to embrace their gay love and marry them. They’re not demanding that those against same-sex bonds change their private attitudes. What they are asking is that they be afforded the same rights and protections as everyone else, whether or not everyone approves of their lifestyle.
Most disturbing for me is the lack of self-awareness amongst the groups rallying behind Dan Cathy. It is a possibility that at some point down the road, Christians will be in the minority in the USA—this is purely hypothetical, mind you, but nevertheless possible. Let’s also say (again, hypothetically) that a hyper-secular group comes to power in place of the once-dominant Christian majority. Once they’ve secured their position of power, would it be right for the secularists to take control of the state to deprive Christians their constitutional rights concerning religious freedom? No. Of course not. Then why is the reverse all right?
I should add here that the forceful opposition to this movement, including those hoping to use the state apparatus to deprive Chick-Fil-A of their right to practice commerce in some districts, is equally misdirected and ill-informed, but I would submit that the same flawed desire lies at the core of both sides. Entertainingly, they’re more alike than they know (or care to admit).
Christians have historically enjoyed a great deal of sociocultural dominance in the USA since its inception, but the Constitution itself was designed to prevent the tyranny of the majority from (hopefully) wrenching control of the state apparatus and using it to deprive the minorities of their rights (see The Federalist Papers, #10 specifically addresses religious factions). Historically, the Constitution eventually wins out, albeit with much struggle and tribulation. It’s imperfect, but it works.
I’m not entirely sure what these Christians are thinking by promoting the erosion of the wall between church and state like this. The precedent they’re setting here and now—by imposing their will and using it to deprive others of their rights—can just as quickly be turned against them when they no longer hold sway in this country. Their position genuinely puzzles me.