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03 July, 2007

Riffing on Church and State

Some years ago, before Lawrence v. Texas, before Goodridge vs. Department of Public Health, there was a hearing in Massachusetts before the joint judiciary committees of the legislature about whether or not same-sex couples should be considered to have the right to contract marriage. It was an open session; people in general were invited to come and speak.

The thing that struck me the most oddly was one of the committee members, a devout Catholic from what he was saying, continuing to ask, "If same-sex couples can marry, won't the Catholic church be forced to marry them?"

I wished someone had pointed out that he should only worry about that after the divorcee lobby beats Catholic doctrine in single combat. (Pun not intended, but it pleases me, so I'm leaving it.)

A couple of religious groups, including Christian ones, pointed out that they were actually having to deal with restrictions on their religious practice because they couldn't certify same-sex partnerships to the same level that they were able to certify opposite-sex ones. This didn't seem to register to him as a problem -- the law was in keeping with Catholic positions on it, so changing it looked anti-Catholic to him.

I get sort of hypersensitised to this sort of thing because of being well aware of my religious minority status (people arguing about religious meanings of marriage look quite strange to someone whose religious beliefs on the subject are that it's a legal contract, for example); when people are blind even to differences in doctrine and the effects of law on even different Christian sects, the odds of a rogue polytheist being heard are very slight, no matter how sound my theology is within my faith.

Some people talk about the separation of church and state as if it's some sort of atheist plot to kill religion. Which is, I suppose, all well and good if one's perfectly confident that one's own religion is the one that will get written up in the laws when the damn things get intertwined with religious doctrine. But, again, even within Christian denominations there isn't that much agreement, so all those majority-faith folks will scream bloody murder at the impositions they want to impose on each other's churches. (And while it would be an amusing world where a devout Setian like me might get to write things up, I can't build a strong enough scaffolding to suspend my disbelief. Even if I were inclined to want to legislate my faith, in no plausible universe is it gonna happen.) Keeping religion and law in their own spheres keeps them from corrupting each other -- and they will taint each other, rendering both less useful.

The whole outbreak of "God Bless America" babble after 11 September 2001 made me cringe. Not just because I was pretty sure that most people were either blind to how exclusive the prayer was or gleeful that they could render atheists and people like me uncomfortably on the outside of the jingoism -- but because the bombing was the sort of thing that happens when people believe that gods care about nations.

(This post is a contribution to the "Blogging Against Theocracy" church and state blogswarm.)

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