Editor’s Note: Published in May 2005, this article commemorated the passage of Connecticut’s same-sex civil union bill, which had been rejected in 2003 (click here). This was the first legislation of its type enacted by any state house in the country. Stuff like this makes me proud to say I live in Connecticut. However, as soon as Governor Rell signed it, religious groups began demonstrating in Hartford to protest its passage. Stuff like that makes me proud to say, “Thank God I’m an atheist.”

Connecticut Got It Right

Connecticut is “one of the left-leaningest states” in the country. This must be true because right-wing pundit William F. Buckley said so in a recent editorial about Connecticut’s enactment of a same-sex civil union bill.

Despite being such a bastion of left-wing radicalism, Connecticut’s representatives have managed to pass sensible legislation that will stand as a civil rights milestone and inch us a bit closer to Jefferson’s elusive and utopian goal of a nation in which “all men are created equal.” Hartford can be proud to be the nation’s first state legislature to do so.

With the country shredded into red and blue states, and the government in Washington suffering through the most-divisive partisanship in recent memory, it’s refreshing that Connecticut has taken a moderate path. Having been enacted by mainstream politicians from both parties, this measure displeases ideologues on both wings; however, the purpose of good legislation should never be to satisfy the outliers at either extreme of the political spectrum.

Religious Right zealots will never approve of any legislation that improves the lives of homosexuals, or gives their lifestyles any imprimatur of acceptability. Even the bill’s accompanying amendment defining marriage as being between one man and one woman isn’t going to be enough to make the religious fanatics happy.

Meanwhile, the more-extreme gay rights activists are distressed that the word “marriage” won’t define their unions, because they feel this diminishes their relationships and makes them second-class citizens. This despite the fact that they’ll be denied none of the bundle of rights (588 according to the legislature’s count) inherent in the civil union statute.

It’s hard to argue with a definition (“the institution whereby men and women are joined …”) that’s been in Webster’s ever since there’s been a Webster’s. Realistically, the marriage language resolution is largely symbolic, and “marriage” is only a word anyway.

Homosexuals will have to accept that they can’t marry in the traditional sense, just as there are some things that are, by definition, improbable. Men don’t give birth, women don’t play linebacker for the Minnesota Vikings and gay couples aren’t married in St. Patrick’s Cathedral by Cardinal Egan. But what’s important is that no one’s civil rights are being denied by the state.

And “state” is the key word here, because Connecticut’s civil union legislation, with its marriage definition amendment, is a compromise perfectly in keeping with the concept of church/state separation. This bill recognizes that marriage has always comprised two components: the religious aspect — with a white dress symbolizing virginity, a clergyman officiating in a church or a temple, and a biblical text that joins a man and a woman in “holy” matrimony — and the secular, civil portion, with rights of inheritance, joint income tax returns, rights of visitation in hospitals and other partnership benefits that can be conferred by a justice of the peace.

This bill grants gay couples civil rights without stepping on the church’s right to disapprove of and eschew participation in homosexual relationships. No gay couple should expect any church to conduct a ceremony it disdains. Groucho Marx said, “I wouldn’t want to join any club that would have me as a member.” This is amusing, but the truth is gay couples shouldn’t want to be a part of any religious institution that doesn’t want them as members. (The same advice applies to pro-choice Republicans and Jewish applicants to Hezbollah.)

This is a resolution with which everyone should be able to live comfortably. To this day, despite the hysterical rhetoric of the Religious Right, there’s been no comprehensive explanation of how gay marriage actually threatens heterosexual marriage. And even less of a case can be made that civil unions will damage the institution.

As time passes, and everyone gets used to the idea of civil unions, we’ll likely find that society hasn’t crumbled in Connecticut; our heterosexual divorce rate has continued to hover at its current, pathetic 50% level; and God hasn’t smote Hartford’s state house with thunderbolts. And eventually, some liberal denominations, such as the United Church of Christ, might even be willing to conduct services for gay couples.

The extremists who feel that separation of church and state means God should be totally banished from public discourse will probably remain unhappy that the definition of marriage has been established in accord with religious standards. And those on the Religious Right who reject the basic precepts of church/state separation will never be truly happy living in the left-leaningest state in the union anyway. But they can always move somewhere more to their liking — perhaps Iran or Saudi Arabia … or maybe Alabama.

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