(NOTE: This entry guest blogged by Bryan)
Yesterday, the California Supreme Court voted 5-2 to void the almost 4,000 same-sex marriages peformed in San Francisco earlier this year. The findings affirmed that Mayor Gavin Newsom had acted outside his legal bounds, which could provide an example for more local officials to begin creating their own legislation, disregarding state and/or federal laws. As a result, the marriages performed between February 12 and March 11 are now considered invalid.
This should come as no surprise to anyone, Newsom included. He was well aware of what laws he was sidestepping in the name of progress and equality, and this action is merely another major step in the fight to secure marital rights for all gay Americans. In the Supreme Court trial back in May, Newsom's attorney Therese M. Stewart chided the state laws as "separate but equal." Defending her client's arguably brave act, she explained, "All public officials owe their allegiance first to the constitution. He did not want to enforce a statute he found unconstitutional, sometimes local officials need to act."
It's important to note that yesterday's decision was based solely on whether Newsom's actions were within his authority, and not whether gay marriage was an acceptable union in California. The real story here is that because public consciousness has been raised, civil suits that might have been tied up are going to proceed straight through the courts, with even more swiftness toward an official state resolution. Newsom is no fool. This is an election year, and these marriages have become a public hot-button --- spawning a national counter-amendment (which was beaten easily), and affecting the campaign agenda of Presidential and Senate/House nominees --- all due to the stand taken by Newsom.
Which begs two questions:
1. At what point is civil disobedience morally justified?
Certainly there's no debating he overlooked the law, and Newsom must have rationalized that his actions would be called out, and eventually struck down. Laws aren't arbitrarily created, there is thought and public opinion and a maintenance of civil order involved. Yet in the past fifty years, there have been marches, rallies, sit-ins, non-violent protests all in the name of progress, and it has enabled civil and social issues to be brought into the foreground and dealt with justly. When groups have broken the law they have done so at their peril, but it is these stands which have nudged our great country further toward equality. The Gay and Lesbian movement has made innumerable strides over the last decade, and Newsom's torch-carrying may provoke the state and federal constitutions to legitimize and honor gay lifestyle in the upcoming years.
So when does it become acceptable to overstep the rules? Ever? Only in moral instances of discrimination? There are as many arguments for such action as there are against. Breaking the law should never be a simple act of defiance, but is it our moral responsibility to act rightfully if it is in our power? At what point should concerned citizenship turn into meddling with laws as they stand? Should Newsom be removed from office, or worse, face jail time for this not-so-quiet act of personal defiance? Or, from another point of view, this harsh act of anarchy?
Think carefully before you answer, because a partisan cheering or condemnation of Newsom's behavior could reveal hypocrisy. I could, in almost the same way, ask that very same question of President Bush and the Iraq war.
Now to the second, and perhaps larger, question:
2. Despite the social ramifications, should this even remain a legal battle at all?
Lost in the morality debate, people often neglect what is the real issue here: a traditional yet unconstitutional tie between Church and State. Marriage was, and is, a legally binding contract between a man and a woman to share monies and property. This was its initial purpose centuries ago, a business transaction between families to contain and grow wealth. Yet it's implied that marriage is also something sacred, and its intangible context suggests a spiritual and moral union between partners in love (sometimes under God, depending on your faith). Most people don't want to just believe marriage is the former, to do so would take romance out of it and turn a life of love into a joint bank account. Understanding this, the Church is willing to play into this evenly and steadily. It keeps them right in the thick of the argument, always influencing policy and forwarding their agenda. I don't fault them, but it is worth noting.
While the delineation between the two definitions of marriage is currently unclear, a bird's-eye view reveals that the appropriateness of same-sex marriage shouldn't be a semantic values argument at all, or not for the courts at any rate. It's this word marriage that has tripped us up for the latter half of a decade. In our struggle to define it, our faith in its 'higher purpose' has overshadowed its original practical application. Words like sancitity and tradition have come into play, neglecting that the initial tradition of marriage was far from love-induced. A spiritual debate should ensue to determine whether or not to honor same-sex marriage, hopefully finding for equality, but this discussion belongs in the Church. In the State, it is a non-content issue, a transactional understanding. The word marriage should be removed from legislation altogether to avoid confusion and spare religious zeal.
This simple solution would only require a readjustment of thinking, and a clarification of terms. All current marriages should legally be abolished, and renamed/reinstated as Civil Unions. Then from this point we should set about securing unions for all men and women who wish to be joined together, including women who wish to be joined with women, or men with men. All consenting adults should have equal rights for the sharing of property, monies and livelihood, including health care. Everyone is treated equally because there is no moral quandry --- the religion of marriage is removed from the equation, the union of partnership remaining.
Then the debate can finally end up where it belongs: the Church. Or elsewhere. Save the debates for the Blog world, or the coffee houses, diners and bars of America. Leave them out of the legislation. Those who wish to be joined together before God in marriage should strive for equality where God is the overseer. Having equal rights and equal citizenship, and being noted and respected by the government is a different matter.