April 10, 2012

A Marriage Between Church and State?

Like just about every other social justice issue, it seems that the issue of gay marriage and gay rights has become a political one. It is, of course, disappointing, to say the least, when issues of social justice become politically polarized, because it automatically means they can’t be viewed objectively. Just as the GOP seems to be opposed to practically every pro-environmental piece of legislation that comes to vote (not to mention that they are staunch advocates of a lot of anti-environmental legislation), the issue of gay rights is similarly polarized by political party lines. However, unlike the former, the ethics of the anti-gay rights argument is founded not in logic, nor science, nor even economic interest, but rather in religious texts, traditions and beliefs.

I am infuriated that this continues to entertain this debate in the legislature becaus from the ethical argument that everyone should be treated equally under the law and by his/her peers, it conflicts with founding ideologies of our nation. The ideology I want to focus on is an idea inherent in the First Amendment. Though not explicitly stated in the Bill of Rights – but rather quoted from a letter written by then President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 regarding the function of the First Amendment – we believe in a “wall of separation between church and state.” Almost a century and a half later this ideology was upheld in court when a 1947 Supreme Court ruling (Everson v. Board of Education) held that a separation of church and state means “that there should be virtually no contact between religious ideas and government activity.” But 200 years after Jefferson’s explanation and over 60 years since the Supreme Court case, we’re still fighting to keep religious ideas out of legislation.

With regard to fight to legalize gay marriage, I have yet to find someone whose opinion against this legalization is not grounded in (Judeo-Christian) religious belief and, as I’m sure you’ve heard before, this belief is grounded in one verse: Leviticus 18:22, which is typically understood to denounce homosexual acts in some way, shape or form. Before this blog post I would have, without hesitation, told you that it explicitly denounces a male from sleeping with another male and would have made the argument that this is ridiculous because we merely need to look at male and female anatomy to acknowledge that this is, indeed, impossible. But after doing a little scooping around, I fell upon a webpage (Religioustolerance.org) with different interpretations of Leviticus 18:22. I’m now beginning to think, “It’s no wonder people are using this verse as an attack against gay marriage legislation because some of these translations are ‘interpretation[s] that most closely reinforce…initial biases about the Bible and homosexual behavior.’” Translations of this verse range from “Thou shalt not lie with a man as with a woman: it is [an] abomination” (English Standard Version) to “Homosexuality is absolutely forbidden, for it is an enormous sin” (Living Bible). The latter, of course, translates a preconceived notion of morality, as the Living Bible translation extends the phraseology also to condemn sex between two women, whereas the first makes no mention of women’s sexual exploits. Now I’m no biblical expert, but I know enough Hebrew to know that these two translations absolutely cannot originate from the same text. Which brings me to this point: if, for a moment, we ignore our ideology that bars religious ideas in government activity, if we can’t even decide how properly to translate this verse – if we don’t even understand what it’s trying to tell us – how can we validate it as an argument against legalizing gay marriage?

If we run with this argument – that the Torah (Old Testament) forbids homosexuality in some way, shape or form, therefore we should write this into law – why do we only choose to continue to try to enforce this one verse? Our religious morals certainly do not pertain only to the issue of homosexuality. As a society, we look down upon, if not condemn, adultery, though I doubt you’d find many supporters for the ancient law that reads “the man that committeth adultery with another man’s wife, even he that committeth adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” [sic] (Leviticus 20:10, King James translation). Or for dealing with a difficult teenager, I doubt you’d find many who think this law is just: “If a man have a stubborn and rebellious son, which will not obey the voice of his father, or the voice of his mother…then shall his father…bring him out unto the elders of his city…And all the men of his city shall stone him with stones, that he die” (Deuteronomy 21:18-21, King James translation). If, in agreeing that many of these laws are outdated, to say the least, and border on ‘cruel and unusual,’ why do we still maintain that ancient laws about homosexuality pertain to modern society any more than ancient laws about justice for unruly sons or unfaithful spouses?

I am Conservative Jewish and my experience has lent me to believe that I am more observant than most of my Conservative peers (note: Conservative here means Conservative Jews), yet I don’t believe in applying ancient law to a society that is so vastly different in practically every way from ancient times. Is this text that speaks out against men lying with other men in my religious history? Yes, but that does not mean I want to see this translated into law.

The First Amendment protects my right to freely exercise my own religion and my own religious beliefs and my right to be protected from “an establishment of religion.” I think I’ve made it clear that the way I interpret this ancient text is very different from the way others interpret it. I don’t believe – with regard to the Constitution or otherwise – that another’s religious beliefs should be forced on my lifestyle or anyone else’s. If you don’t believe in the institution of gay marriage then my advice is simple: don’t marry someone of the same sex. But don’t tell me that just because your religious preachings tell you not to marry someone of the same sex means that your belief should legally apply to everyone, regardless of their own religious ideologies.

As it stands, we live in a country that, historically at least, believes that religious doctrine should not be translated to law. Unless a logical argument, independent of religious bias, can be made, the arguments against legalizing gay marriage should be voided and the issue kicked out of Congress and off the ballots, because I don’t want to live in a state –or a country for that matter – that thinks religious ideas should be made into secular law, even if the decision is determined democratically.

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