Aug 05, 2010

Yesterday, U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker gave us an excellent tutorial on why the debate over marriage rights for same-sex couples is as much about church-state separation as it is about equality for all Americans.

In his decision striking down Proposition 8 -- California’s constitutional ban on gay marriage -- he explained that our laws, including those governing marriage, cannot be based solely on private moral or religious beliefs – they must also have a secular purpose.

Proposition 8, Judge Walker found, was based on a private moral viewpoint and had no legitimate governmental interest, let alone a compelling one.

In Perry v. Schwarzenegger, Judge Walker made it clear that in the United States, marriage is a civil matter. Whether the state recognizes same-sex marriage in no way affects a religious group’s right to perform only the marriages it sees fit. At the same time, religious groups, no matter how large and well-funded, cannot use government to enforce their marriage doctrines, making some Americans second-class citizens in the process.

“Civil authorities may permit religious leaders to solemnize marriages but not to determine who may enter or leave a civil marriage,” Judge Walker wrote. “Religious leaders may determine independently whether to recognize a civil marriage or divorce but that recognition or lack thereof has no effect on the relationship under state law.”

His words were music to our ears here at Americans United. Proponents of Proposition 8 – the Roman Catholic bishops, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (the Mormons), various fundamentalist Protestant groups --- wanted civil marriage law to conform to the teaching of their particular faiths. That’s an outrageous demand in a country that prides itself on religious liberty and welcomes those of all belief systems.

Several news outlets quoted Barry W. Lynn, Americans United’s executive director, in hailing the Perry decision as a victory for religious liberty.

CNN, for example, included Lynn’s statement in a list of reactions to the federal court ruling.

“This is tremendous step forward for individual freedom and church-state separation,” Lynn asserted. “Aggressive and well-funded religious groups conspired to take away the civil marriage rights of same-sex couples in California. That was wrong, and I am delighted that the court has ruled the way it has.”

In a USA Today report, he was quoted as saying, “A growing number of American denominations and faith groups perform same-sex marriages. Why should the state refuse to recognize those ceremonies while approving of ceremonies by other clergy? A decent respect for church-state separation means the government should not play favorites when it comes to religion.”

Judge Walker’s decision was well-thought out and eloquently done. He dealt carefully with all the constitutional implications of denying same-sex couples the right to marry, including taking into consideration the negative impact that discriminatory religious beliefs have had on a minority group.

Though the decision is just the first step in what will likely be years of litigation, it’s nice to know the church-state parameters of this issue were handled so well in the first hurdle.