Reader Response: Separation of Church and State in Regards to Gay Marriage
(Here at VAS Littlecrow, we publish art and writings that help stimulate thoughts that reflect a diversity of opinions and encourage healthy debate. If you have a detailed response to any of the art or opinion pieces on this site, please let me know via the comments section or by email. The following post is a rebuttal to A Comprehensive Conservative Defense of Gay Marriage piece from an atheist perspective. It is written by The Idealist and is reposted by permission.)
I recently got into a discussion with Vas Littlecrow about her “comprehensive conservative defense of gay marriage.” We started off rocky as I condemned her approach as bigoted and sensationalist. While I stand by those claims, I do not in any way make them about her personal character, only about the rhetoric she used. We have since come to an understanding and she requested I write a response to her argument. While this is not a point for point rebuttal, I do feel it addresses the main contentions between our arguments. The link to her original argument is directly below. Please read her article first as mine deals largely with the issue she brings to the table.
Separation of Church and State in Regards to Gay Marriage
The concept of “separation of church and state” as we understand it today comes from a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in the state of Connecticut written by Thomas Jefferson. This letter was a response to their concerns that their religious liberties were not seen as rights, but privileges given to them from government. In his letter, Jefferson replies
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.
Jefferson believed that a person’s choice of religion should not be regulated by the government. He also qualifies this concept with the idea that government powers reach actions only, and not opinions. Some could argue that this line is simply reiterating the previous and later ideas that government has no right to regulate religion. It does not. It limits the legitimate powers of government to actions so that it cannot punish thoughts, or create laws against thoughts or opinions. This is not to say government is limited in what you do as a result of those thoughts. This states the opposite. The government cannot make you chose Christianity over Islam. It can however punish you for killing people in the name of your faith. It can punish you for doing anything that it deems illegal regardless of your religious practice. The Supreme Court elaborated on this idea in 1990 with the Employment Division v. Smith case. A religion neutral law is enforceable under the constitution regardless of how it affects specific religions. It was a very main point of the founders to hinder the creation of a single “Church of America” similar to that of the Church of England. It was seen as a secondary tool of the king to rule his subjects in a religious manner as well as a secular one. After gaining independence from Great Britain, the founders wanted to create an entirely new form of government that was run by its citizens, and not tyrants from on high. The connected power of Church and State that the King of England wielded was an effective one, one that the founders never intended for the “powers that be” of America to wield. They split the powers apart and granted one to the people (religion) and one to the government (legislation).The idea that our government then requires atheists to run it, and religion to be stripped away entirely is preposterous. Religion, to those that follow one, is a lens through which they see the world. It filters incoming signals from “reality” to the observer and laces their thoughts, beliefs, actions, and cognition about the world around them. Religion is not the only lens, of course, and atheists are not immune to this bias. Everyone has a bias towards something and away from other things. It is the conflict of ideas created by our founder’s framework for government that forces legislation to continue. Without the religious bias tempering the atheist’s, and vice versa, many people would feel victimized and marginalized by the government they voted for, something completely antithesis to what the founders wanted. Their creation was not meant to follow their own Deistic beliefs but to mold and shape itself to the majority’s beliefs. No secularist with any amount of historical instruction on the birth of America will claim that the country was created as an atheist nation. Nor should Christian’s claim that it was born a christian nation. The fact of the matter is, it was created secular, meaning personal views about religion or the lack thereof were to be excluded entirely. They should be a non-issue, and never asked of those that run for, or already are in office.The founders were also great philosophers and clearly borrowed much of their ideas from philosophers past. In fact, our current government is a creation of mixed philosophies by John Locke, Thomas Hobbs, and Jean Jacques Rousseau. The founders were also very weary of Alexis de Tocqueville’s “tyranny of the majority,” which is why they created the separation of powers between the branches of government devised by John Locke. It is this modification to the constitutional republic system that allows America to be uninfluenced by faith or religion. While the majority may be christian, it is the safeguards against the tyranny of the majority along with the establishment clause that does not allow for a religious doctrine to become the law of the land, unless that law serves a secular purpose. Two examples are easy parallels to explain this concept: murder and marriage.
Murder has long been prohibited in religions all across the world. The Ten Commandments are usually the first source an American will point out as an abolition of murder and murderous intent. Murder in the bible is considered sinful by god and so he commanded his chosen people to abstain from any form of murder. He wrote this rule among nine others on two stone tablets and gave them to Moses to take to the people. This is why Christians are told not to murder, because it is sinful, and sin distances you from god (or sends you to hell / purgatory depending on the denomination).The prohibition of murder in society however also has a valid secular purpose as well. If you ask anyone on the street if murder is immoral and wrong, chances are 99.99% of them will say yes. These people include the religious and the non-religious alike. It does not take a deity to come to the conclusion that suffering caused by murder should be avoided. If murder was not illegal, those suffering from antisocial personality disorder, a snap in judgment, or just plain disregard for human suffering, would cause a lot of problems in society. This is part of the reason the social contract exists between a people and their government; it is to protect them from themselves and others that may wish them harm. So while murder may have religious reasons to be illegal, there exists secular ones as well which give our government the authority to make such laws against murder.MarriageMarriage started as a secular endeavor in human affairs. Historically, women were subjugated to a lower status than men and were considered property by them. Marriage as we understand the union today began in ancient Greece. It arose as a solution to inheritance through the patriarchal line. If a man died before he could bear a son, his daughter was forced to marry the closest male relative to ensure the family inheritance. This process was unaffected by the woman’s marital status before her father’s death.  Religious institutions were not involved in the construct until 110 CE when bishop Ignatius of Antioch wrote bishop Polycarp of Smyrna exclaiming, “[I]t becomes both men and women who marry, to form their union with the approval of the bishop, that their marriage may be according to God, and not after their own lust.” Even then the process was secular, though approved by the church. No ceremony was held, no vows before god to remain faithful, etc. To be unfaithful in this era was to blaspheme against your husband and against god, and the secular law required your beheading because of its close ties to the religious law of the land. Until the Council of Trent, a priest wasn’t even required. This is what marked the beginning of marriage as a religious institution, but it has remained secular according to the governments that have fallen and been replaced over the years.
In our current government, marriage is a secular institution that is granted many rights and benefits for those that choose to be members. If a person is married in America, they are afforded such rights as tax-free transfer of property between spouses, funeral and bereavement leave, joint adoption and foster care, joint tax filing, making spousal medical decisions, and so on. The list is quite large, and none of these things above are considered religious freedoms granted to them by their church. The religious nature of your marriage does not grant you any of these rights and denies you from others. An Islamic marriage in America is the same as a christian one, at least according to the government. While it does not harm your marriage to have a priest, or sheik, or any other holy man say a few words and grant you the blessing of your god, ultimately, it does not affect the status of your marriage.Gay MarriageWhen religion, and religious bias is separated from the government and its institutions, there is no reason why the marriage between two consenting adults (or three, or eight, or however many you choose) should be prohibited. The problem arises when religious bias of the majority influences the voting process and restricts rights from a minority within the system. Many, if not all, of the arguments against gay marriage are religious in nature. “It is a sin against god,” “if we allow gays to marry, what’s next? Polygamy or bestiality?” “marriage is a religious institution,” “what will I tell my kids?” are all arguments that have been made against gay marriage.
The Slippery Slope Argument
The slippery slope argument is flawed in two ways. The first being the person who is making the argument is biased against multiple person marriages because of their religious beliefs. The second is the idea that somehow gay is the same as animal. According to the idea of separation of church and state, religious laws should not be created as secular laws unless they serve a legitimate secular purpose. There are secular reasons the government may wish to limit the number of persons in a marriage. There are also clear secular reasons why bestiality should be banned. This line of reasoning also loses sight of the idea of “consent.” Multiple persons can consent, animals cannot. Religion is not required to make “consent” a mandatory requirement for marriage.
Marriage is a religious institution
We have already discussed how marriage neither began as a religious institution, nor remains one today. The only aspect of marriage that is considered religious is the couple’s choice of holy man or no holy man at all.
It is a sin against god
It may be a sin in your particular religion. The problem is that it may not be in another’s. It may be a blessing to be gay in another religion (as it is in the Lakota tribe). The conflict between the two religions is the exact conflict desired to be removed from government discourse. Separation of church and state protects Christianity from the Lakota belief of three genders and homosexuality as a blessing. It also protects the Lakota from the Christian belief of homosexuality as a sin. That is the beauty of separation of church and state. It is a secondary mechanism along the separation of powers to stop the “tyranny of the majority.”
What will I tell my kids?
What a person tells their child about homosexuality is between the parent(s) and their child(ren). If these parents can explain heterosexual love, they are already equipped with the tools to explain homosexual love. If a problem arises between the parent’s religion and homosexuality, then the parent is not forced to tell their child that homosexuality is okay. That is their religious belief and cannot be infringed by the government. However, the parent cannot justify their condemnation of homosexuality in legislation because of that religion. To do so would cross the wall.
In summation, the separation of church and state protects us all from each other’s religions that we disagree with. I may not agree with your idea of god, and you may not agree with the Lakota, but none of us has the legal authority to deny any of the three of us civil rights granted by the government. And marriage, as it stands today, is one of those rights.
 “Marriage, a History.” Psychology Today, May 01, 2005