Saturday, March 17, 2007

On civil unions for everyone:

In Turkey, in many ways a more truly secular society than the U.S., marriage is a civil ceremony for everyone. The legal ceremony-- which is very brief and to the point, consists of: the couple stating their intention to be joined legally; the entering of the event into the record books of the municipality with the signatures of the couple, the official and 2 witnesses; and, occasionally, a short speech on the importance of marriage—is carried out by a government official usually at a party that resembles an American wedding reception. Those who wish to have an Imam (or minister or priest) sanction the marriage, seek one out separately. For some people the official ceremony is the “real” wedding and for others the religious one is most important-- that’s up to the couple and their families. The state sidesteps the issue, as it should, by not allowing religious leaders to be vested with powers of the state. Or, more accurately, it preempts it. In a truly secular society, this never becomes an issue in the first place.

That we have such trouble in the U.S. with the separation of church and state is largely an accident of history. Clearly our founders meant us to have a secular state. Because it was born of a more religious state, colonized by Christians, organized in its early days around churches, and made strong through public education that was-- for much of its history-- religious, the U.S. has out of habit, and sometimes political will, taken on certain characteristics of a religious state (In God we trust).

It is not, I would argue, an accident of history that we have a pluralistic society. It is, instead, the nature of America to welcome citizens of all kinds. The assertion of our Declaration of Independence that all (men) are created equal permeates our national self-image. Before there was even a democracy here, pilgrims came seeking freedom. “Give me your tired, your poor, yearning to breathe free,” the statue of liberty beckons. Our Constitution’s dictate of separation of church and state implies that we are open to being a home to people of all faiths.

Our citizens subscribe to many different religions or to no religion at all. They have many different styles of life and, under our Constitution, they are free to choose what they do privately. Even if you don’t believe this is a secular democracy by doctrine, certainly it is one de facto by virtue of our diverse population.

Now some citizens want to ammend our secular Constitution to deny others the right to marry based on religious ideas that aren't common to all. If we want to keep our democracy from flying apart, we need to affirm that it is a secular one. We should take a lesson from Turkey. We should make church and state truly separate by making civil union and religious marriage separate.

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