By Jorge Reyes
47 years ago, most of us were satisfied with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and, not to be outdone, a year later, with the Voting Rights Act. Today, we have new challenges with new areas of civil rights law that, unfortunately, still seem to linger far behind from the evolving mores of the nation.
I am referring to one remaining example of institutionalized, government-sanctioned discrimination: The 1996 law that denies the right of marriage to same-sex couples, the Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, that was passed in the heat of election-year fear and bigotry against men who want to marry other men, and women who want to marry other women. That bill was sponsored by a Republican congress and signed by then President Bill Clinton.
The law denies federal benefits to same-sex marriages. It explicitedly states that marriage is solely defined by two heterosexual couples. President Obama, who used to say his views on marriage were “evolving,” allowed his Attorney General, Eric Holder, to do what the executive branch should have done long ago and declare that Doma is unconstitutional. The administration is no longer defending Doma against legal challenges.
And today, the Senate Judiciary Committee is beginning consideration of a bill that would repeal the law. Dorothy Samuels, a reporter for a national newspaper, believes that the bill will pass the committee with the votes of all 10 Democratic members. Eight Republicans will probably vote against it, and the Democrats may not be able to muster the 60 votes needed to block a filibuster in the Senate. Prospects in the House are not so great, either.
Sadly, I feel that all of this is a pointless debate because it doesn’t even begin to address the fundamental issue at stake. All this talk of what constitutes marriage is all based on religious beliefs, none of which ought to have much sway in a secular form of government if it is just a way to express discrimination against a particular group of people.
It is far past time to disentangle the religious and the civic aspects of marriage. In such a heterogeneous, secular, and diverse society as ours, it is not the role of government to interfere in an area that is, basically, religious. And, again, that is what all these laws and regulations are all about: religious in nature. True equality in a democracy ought to emphasize equality before the law, not have an oligarchical system pick and choose what is right for some based on some historical misreading of our founding principles.
The only way to ensure true marriage equality is to remove the ability of churches to give its blessing on the legality on any matter that is of a civil nature, such as marriage and family. There are other hot button issues which are all religious in nature, of course. If that continues to happen indiscriminately, we will find ourselves no different from other countries that base their government on a god.
The role of drafting laws or ordinances is reserved to the government, federal, state, or local, not a church. Couples, regardless of their sexual orientation, should be able to marry and their avowals, civil or religious, ought to be respected and encouraged. If they so choose, they can then seek the religious (non-legal) blessing of their church, or mosque or synagogue. But that is only a choice, which is a personal matter that should not concern any of us.
Otherwise we really are no different from noxious laws that, though on principle were equal under the law, were on principle second class citizens. We have had plenty of those throughout our history. Let us not go down that path again.