Dan Jackson — Marriage as defined by the people

“Mawage. Mawage is wot bwings us togeder tooday. Mawage, that bwessed awangment, that dweam wifin a dweam … And wuv, twu wuv, will fowow you foweva … So tweasure your wuv.”

~ The Impressive Clergyman, from “The Princess Bride”

What is marriage?

An institution? A union before God? A financial contract? A tax break?

Or is it an expression of true love?

Marriage can be all of these in our society. It’s different things to different people. But, of course, none of these reasons for marriage were ever in dispute before the Supreme Court. It’s always been about who is entitled to them.

Marriage has been institutionalized in modern society, on tax forms, in regulations about inheritance and spousal rights, and in legal precedents about conversations protected by spousal privilege. Western civilization recognizes marriage as a legally binding contract, in the eyes of the courts and government.

And, Western society handed all those privileges to straight couples over the years without much fanfare. Opponents of gay marriage want to horde those rights, and don’t want to share them under any circumstances.

From a legal and institutional standpoint, I understand the argument, though in this case, I don’t agree. The privileges associated with marriage aren’t written into the Bill of Rights, and there are reasons why there are some restrictions. For instance, my 13-year-old and his girlfriend du jour shouldn’t be allowed to marry, nor should a 48-year-old be allowed to pluck his wife from the Hoquiam High School freshman class. Both of those examples make us all uncomfortable, and should.

But not everything that makes us uncomfortable should be illegal. I’ve seen plays about subjects that make me uncomfortable, and I didn’t once think that the actors should be arrested. Horror movies make me uncomfortable (and contribute to my insomnia because I’m a huge wimp) but Roman Polanski and Wes Craven shouldn’t be forced into exile to make their films.

Law vs. Morality

Laws and rights are all about where to draw the line, but where this line falls is not about black and white legalities.

Gay marriage is a legal argument wrapped in moral cloth — in other words, this argument is not about the legal definition of marriage. It’s about whether embracing the gay community is acceptable to society.

The ideal of marriage, the standard by which all relationships are truly measured, is love. The existence of true love may not be a reality for every relationship, sadly, but it is the ideal. The legalities are really an extension of the love between two people. The contract is based on affection. When you think of the reasons to get married, what is the first thing that falls from your lips? The legal benefits of the contractual arrangement?

I doubt it.

By the same token, there is no “love test” to get a marriage license. The love between two people is considered private and isn’t quantifiable by any of those on the outside looking in. Regardless, many folks who are against gay marriage seem to think they have a monopoly on love.

I say “prove it.”

The extension of that is an insulting insinuation that relationships between same-sex couples are an affront to civilized society and some kind of impure or selfish expression.

We used to treat inter-racial marriage the same way. Remember?

The court of public opinion

It’s important to point out that in both its recent rulings, the Supreme Court didn’t approve or disapprove of gay marriage directly. It didn’t render an opinion on whether two people of the same sex really can love each other. Nor should it have.

In the majority opinion in the Defense of Marriage Act case, it simply said that, if state law allows same-sex couples to marry, there is no appropriate reason to deny them access to some of the more than 1,100 areas of federal law where marriage is a factor.

In the California case, the court only said that someone other than the state didn’t have legal standing to defend the law. It seems like a bit of a cop-out to me. But the overriding theme of the court’s two rulings seems to be that it’s up to the states — and the people — to define marriage, not the federal government. And, if the state chooses not to defend Proposition 8, then so be it — in effect, they have made their decision.

So, though the opinions of the justices were long and overwritten, essentially, the U.S. Supreme Court says “it’s up to you guys.”

Those decisions should be by the people. Take Washington for example. Nearly 54 percent of us voted in favor of allowing gay marriage — more than 1.6 million Washingtonians who said, “your love is just as valid as ours.”

Nine justices don’t seem so powerful after you look at the numbers. I’m glad they recognized that, too.

You don’t have to like it

It’s important to remember that the discrimination knife cuts both ways. Opponents of gay marriage are entitled to their opinion, and have a right to express it. I’m certainly not out to treat them as lepers.

I understand that the idea of gay marriage is uncomfortable to people. I’m uncomfortable with many things, too. The Supreme Court can’t take those feelings away.

Hopefully, though, it will remind us that being uncomfortable doesn’t overpower our desire to respect the rights of others, whether we like their opinions or not.

Dan Jackson, The Daily World’s city editor, can be reached at 537-3929, or by email at djackson@thedailyworld.com.