Musing About Marriage Equality

Living in a state where “race” is still a box to fill in on marriage licenses, I’m often reminded how parallel today’s marriage equality issues are, legally speaking. Some of the same arguments are even used (see “Why the Ugly Rhetoric Against Gay Marriage Is Familiar to This Historian of Miscegenation“). How simple to allow marriage, regardless of the race or gender of the partner!

Certainly the issue cannot just be procreation. We do not dissolve marriages automatically if the partners cannot procreate, nor do we require procreation of married couples where the partners are different sexes or genders.

There are three other arguments sometimes floated in support of discriminating in marriage by gender of the partner, on the assumption that these are relevant parallels.

One is to point to marriage laws that discriminate on the basis of age. But we have many laws that discriminate against minors, assuming that they have a diminished capacity to make contracts. And marriage, under the law, is primarily a legally binding contract. Religiously and ethically, a marriage takes on other dimensions, but the civil aspect of it is contractual. And we don’t permit minors to make binding contracts, or we ask at certain ages that their parents sign for them. So it is with marriage. And a partner of the same gender is hardly equivalent to a child.

A second, more offensive argument, is to ask “Will the next step be to marry an animal?” Besides the basic offensiveness of comparing a partner of the same gender to an animal, this argument fails logically as well, because marriage requires consent, and animals cannot communicate consent to marriage or even comprehension of what marriage means.

A third argument is more convincing to some: if “one man, one woman” falls and marriage can include two men or two women, why not two women and one man, or other combinations of more than two people?

I consider this another straw man argument, logically, because our legal system is already set up to handle marriages of two people, but is in no way set up to handle marriages of more than two people. Regardless of whether I think such polygamous marriages should be legal, the issue is not parallel.

In removing discrimination based on the gender (or race) of the partner, marriage laws remain essentially the same. Two people make a contract for life, or until they legally end the marriage, to share their property and their lives. There’s already a body of law about how to handle children who are not the biological offspring of both partners in the marriage. Nothing really changes with removing gender discrimination.

Same sex marriage requires almost no other changes in the law other than removing the gender of the partner as relevant, just as Loving v. Virginia meant nothing more in the law than removing the race of the partner as relevant. But “number” has more implications.

If four people are “married” are each married to each of the others, is there one marriage? Or are there multiple interrelated marriages, each of two people? Is there a primary partner all others are married to? Does a divorce of one dissolve the whole marriage — or can that divorce leave someone still married to others who are now divorced from each other? Do all spouses have to agree to a divorce, or only two people?

If marriages can include more than two people, how many people are the legal parents of a particular child? Are all in the marriage parents of all the children, with full legal guardianship rights, even such simple things as signing permission slips, and such complex things as custody after death or divorce or remarriage? Or, are only the biological parents the legal parents? What adoption rights do the other spouses have? What custody rights do surviving spouses have if one or more parents die or leave the marriage?

Property ownership within marriage: do all share everything? Or is this two-and-two, with, for examples, two wives married to the same man not sharing property with each other but only with their mutual husband? And in such a situation, how does his property get shared?

How do joint tax returns get filed, and how are taxes calculated? If one person has health care coverage, are all spouses and children of the whole interconnected marriage covered, or is this split by pairs of adults and “their” children separate from other children?

Inheritance — do laws that exist now on inheritance — e.g. giving 1/3 of the estate in some states automatically to the spouse and 2/3 to children — apply to all spouses and children, or only pairs within the group? How are surviving spouse benefits calculated and who gets them? Are separate checks sent to each of the surviving spouses? Since such benefits can be given now even after divorce, in certain circumstances, what if the surviving spouses are no longer married to each other yet are equally eligible?

There are a LOT of legal implications. Whether or not one accepts that marriage of more than two people is a “good thing” or even ought to be accepted on the principle that people have some rights to be wrong — the legal implications are complicated and a simple “yes let’s include this” won’t suffice to implement such a change. When I’ve talked with people in polyamorous relationships, or even marriages that are legal in other parts of the world but not in this country, I realize that those in such relationships do not agree among themselves how these issues get sorted out. At a minimum, every such marriage would require detailed legal agreements.

If society gets to a point where we are considering the legalities of polygamy, we’ll sort it out, but we’re not there yet. It’s a quite different social problem from simply removing race (as happened with Loving v. Virginia) or gender of the partner as an impediment to a legal marriage.

The Smallest Religion?

MSNBC – We count, therefore we are : “Roman Catholics had the largest reported religious membership, with 66.4 million Americans, followed by the Southern Baptist Convention, with 16.2 million members (and over 94,000 pastors). Utah had the most self-identified Christian residents — over 74 percent — while Nevada and Oregon hovered at just 30 percent. On the more modest side, 11,000 Americans identified themselves as Rastafarians; 4,000 as devotees of Ethical Culture.”

Originally posted online on December 18, 2004

Inherent Worth of Abusers?

I am often asked how I can have faith in the inherent worth and dignity of every human being. If someone abuses you or others repeatedly, seriously, are they still persons of worth?

Here’s my quick summary of conclusions I’ve come to, over many years of thinking about these questions.

Believing in the inherent worth and dignity of someone does not mean that anger is somehow “wrong,” or that all actions are equally “right.”

Belief in worth and dignity does not mean that you “have to” forgive in the absence of changed behavior. You may, at some point, decide to give up anger and even hatred for the sake of your own emotional health, even in the absence of changed behavior — but I think that’s different from forgiveness, which comes only when there’s some genuine understanding and a choice to change and often, also, the choice to make proportional amends, on the part of the person whose actions you found hurtful.

Even when someone’s behavior is hurtful to another, the belief in inherent worth and dignity even in that person is what makes me decide not to treat the person out of vengeance but only to stop the behavior and help establish consequences in proportion to and appropriate to the wrong. Thus, the person can be reported to authorities, such that our legal system’s consequences would apply — but responding in kind with abuse or torture would be something I’d avoid — for my own sake and for the sake of building a more humane culture.

Belief in worth and dignity of others is far more about how I will behave than it is about what quality exists in the other. Even those we call “abusers” — people whose habitual actions hurt others — are human beings, and if we treat them as subhuman, it’s my belief that diminishes us more than it punishes them. But giving consequences to others for hurtful behavior, and establishing boundaries that protect ourselves and others, is not the same as treating someone as subhuman.

Continue reading “Inherent Worth of Abusers?” »

Differences between UU (Unitarian Universalism) and Ethical Culture

Note: the original of this message was written in 1998 as a contribution to the AEU email list, Dialogue, in 1998.  I might write it somewhat differently today, but I’m still in general agreement with these past words.

In my experience, and from long and many talks with people who identify themselves as Ethical Culturists or Ethical Humanists who are attending UU churches because there is no convenient or well-functioning local Ethical Society: the key differences between the two are not theological diversity (Ethical Culture has almost as great a proportion of naturalistic deists/theists as does the midwestern Unitarianism in which I grew up) nor “creed” but the following:

Continue reading “Differences between UU (Unitarian Universalism) and Ethical Culture” »

A Philosophy of Life: Powerful Ideas from Felix Adler

The following is my attempt to tease out key ideas from Felix Adler that can find wide consensus in today’s Ethical movement. Adler, as a human being who founded this Ethical movement, was fallible, and not all his ideas are relevant today. Others may find other ideas from Adler also important; my hope here is that this list starts conversation rather than is taken as any sort of “ultimate answers.”

– Jone Johnson Lewis, 2002-2009
Continue reading “A Philosophy of Life: Powerful Ideas from Felix Adler” »

What Is Ethical Culture?

Leaders in the Ethical Culture movement have been creating a new statement of identity — another of a series of attempts in our history to describe the core of Ethical Culture — and the statement is now finished, and online.  Our Leader Intern, Hugh Taft-Morales, was one of the people who helped create the statement and bring it through the process.

Here are the first paragraphs, plus a link (below) to the full statement:

Dedicated to cultivating moral development in personal life and moral reform in society, Ethical Culture seeks to nurture relationships in which we act so as to elicit the best in others and thereby in ourselves, to provide inspiration and guidance for moral living, and to transform the way humanity views the meaning of life.

Our faith is inspired and animated by the deliberate and reasoned choice of attributing worth and dignity to all. Imbued with a profound sense of interrelatedness, we recognize that we are both dependent and independent—each a unique end unto ourselves. We understand that if any one of us were different life itself would be different. It is through this sense of ourselves as members of an organic whole that we reinforce the attribution of moral worth to every individual.

Ethical Culture is a religion of ethical relationships, a Humanist movement in which ethics is central. We organize congregationally in order to live out our values in community with others, inspired by the ideal of perfected living that always lies beyond our reach. Together we direct our efforts toward assuring a just and abundant life for all.

continuedEthical Culture Statement, National Leaders Council, November 2008