Rhode Island, the last state in New England which does not have marriage equality, will be attempting to change that designation this year as the legislature debates a bill which would legalize marriage for lesbian and gay couples.
As one of the most Catholic states in the Union, by per capita population, members of our church will certainly play significant roles in the debate, both for and against the measure.
Rhode Island’s Bishop Thomas Tobin recently entered the debate, and, not suprisingly, on the side against the proposal. In a column in The Rhode Island Catholic, Tobin outlined his arguments against marriage, many of which defy logical scrutiny and do not stand up to critical examination.
For example, Tobin asserts:
“. . . homosexual marriage enshrines into civil law immoral activity. The natural law, the Holy Scriptures, and long-standing religious tradition are very consistent in affirming that homosexual activity is sinful, contrary to God’s plan. It should never be encouraged, ratified or ‘blessed’ by the state.”
The problem here is that Tobin defines gay and lesbian couples and the institution of marriage both as solely sexual. Ask any married couple, and you’ll learn that marriage is about a lot more than sex. Ask any lesbian or gay couple, and you’ll find out that sexual activity is not the basis of their love relationship. By focusing simply on biological and physical functions, Tobin denigrates both the meaning of marriage and the lives of lesbian and gay people.
Another argument that Tobin offers is also full of holes:
“. . . the concept of same-sex marriage is an untested social experiment with unpredictable long-term outcomes. The marriage of man and woman is, and always has been, the fundamental building block of the human family and human culture. One cannot tinker with this societal DNA without risking unknown changes to the structure of our society, especially as it relates to the proper upbringing of children.”
This argument can no longer be validly used by marriage equality opponents. Marriage equality now exists in 14 nations around the globe and in nine states and the District of Columbia here in the United States. To say it is an untested experiment is simply false. No social damage has been noted because of the adoption of marriage equality. Studies have consistently proven that children in families headed by same-gender couples do not have any more problems than children raised in families headed by heterosexual couples. Lastly, any anthropologist, or even anyone who has mildly studied human culture, can tell you that marriage around the world is and has been a constantly evolving institution, with change being its primary constant.
Tobin also makes the religious liberty argument:
“Another real problem to consider is that the establishment of same-sex marriage would pose yet another threat to religious freedom. Proponents of same-sex marriage have frequently proclaimed that no religious institution will be obliged to officiate at marriages that are contrary to their beliefs. That may or may not prove to be true.”
These statements are simply false. In none of the localities where marriage equality has existed for years have religious leaders been forced to officiate at marriages against their will. To raise this as a possibility is simply fear-mongering at its worst.
Tobin also raises the upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decisions on marriage as a reason for Rhode Island to postpone a marriage debate:
“Let’s wait and see what the Supreme Court determines before we engage in this emotionally-charged and divisive battle once again.”
Does this mean that Tobin would welcome marriage equality if the Supreme Court makes it legal? I don’t think so. Tobin’s argument is simply a stalling tactic.
Tobin concludes by proposing a referendum as a way to decide the question of marriage equality:
“If we are in fact forced to discuss the nature of matrimony in our state, it should be placed before the general public in a referendum. The proposal to redefine marriage as a fundamental structure in our culture is a very serious issue with profound consequences. I suspect that people on both sides of the issue agree with that.”
People on both sides of the debate do not agree with that proposal. Marriage equality advocates do not think it proper to put marriage rights to a vote. This is not just a matter of political expediency, as recent victories in four states indicate that referendums are becoming easier for marriage equality proponents to win.
Tobin’s proposal for a referendum is already dead in the water politically. According to PinkNews, Rhode Island’s Governor Lincoln Chaffee has already said he would veto any legislation designed to make marriage equality a ballot question:
“Governor Chafee, an independent, who supports equal marriage, said on Thursday he’s inclined to veto legislation that would place marriage equality on the ballot as a referendum and instead wants lawmakers to pass it themselves.
“Opponents have suggested putting the question before voters, but supporters say the issue is one of civil rights and should not be decided by a referendum.”
Stay tuned for more news and opinion on what is sure to become an important arena for Catholic debate on marriage equality.
–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry