LUCKY SEVERSON, guest anchor: A new survey indicates that 52 percent of Americans would favor a law that prohibits same-sex marriage. Two Canadian provinces have now made same-sex marriages legal. And the highest court in Massachusetts may soon rule on the issue. We have a report from Jeff Sheler.
JEFF SHELER: Some are calling it a changing of the guard, a social shift of historic proportions in the Canadian provinces of Ontario and British Columbia where, earlier this year, laws were enacted legalizing same-sex marriage. The controversial change has sent shock waves through legal and religious communities on both sides of the border.
But for Americans Herb Russell and Roberto Font Deane, it is an answer to prayer. They have come to Ottawa to be married — something they cannot do back home in New Jersey.
ROBERTO FONT DEANE: To me it is the ultimate public declaration about how two people feel about each other. And it gives me a sense of honesty.
HERB RUSSELL: A lot of people in the straight world take it somewhat for granted. It’s easy to get married and it’s easy to divorce, and all we want is the right to get married.
SHELER: In recent years, the United States has grown more accepting of homosexuality, in public policy as well as in pop culture.
But when it comes to the question of marriage, the nation remains sharply divided. A recent WASHINGTON POST poll found that fewer than four in 10 Americans support same-sex civil unions that would provide some of the rights and legal protections of marriage. Legislatures in 37 states have adopted so-called Defense of Marriage Acts, which define marriage as a contract between a man and a woman.
But on this day, Roberto and Herb are doing what the law allows, even though they know it will not be recognized at home.
Mr. RUSSELL: We are very proud of this moment.
Mr. DEANE: Okay, I’m ready. Are you?
Mr. RUSSELL: I am.
Mr. DEANE: All right. Don’t change your mind.
UNIDENTIFIED CLERK: There is no legal reason why you two cannot be married and you are not close blood relatives. Correct?
Mr. DEANE and Mr. RUSSELL: Correct.
CLERK: Your license is done. There you go. Congratulations.
Mr. RUSSELL: It’s that simple?
CLERK: It’s that simple.
Mr. DEANE: It is not easy for us. We have to leave our own country and enter a country that will celebrate and honor what we are doing. And hopefully we can take what we have done here back to our country and there’ll be some who will recognize and honor what we have done, and there will be some who are absolutely shocked and disgusted by what we have done.
SHELER: Chuck Thayer and Cheryl Nash believe same-sex marriage is a clear violation of God’s law. They plan to marry in September in a church outside of Boston.
CHERYL NASH: If you extend the rights to the same-sex marriage, that is compromising what marriage is all about, which goes back again to the foundation that biblically God designed for a man and a woman. And although it may not affect my everyday commitment to Chuck, it would — in the long run it takes away from what marriage was designed to be.
CHUCK THAYER: I think same-sex marriage would definitely lessen the meaning of what we’re about to undertake.
SHELER: Like Cheryl and Chuck, many Americans view marriage as foremost a religious rite, ordained by God as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman. That marriage also is a legal contract, they say, is secondary. Laws may change, but the divine ordering of the marriage bond cannot be altered.
But Harvard historian Nancy Cott says marriage has changed over the years in some significant ways, as reflected in the high rate of divorce, the changing role of women, and the repeal of laws barring interracial marriage.
Professor NANCY COTT (Historian, Harvard University): These are three areas that are very basic, so that opponents to same-sex marriage who say it has always been the same and this is a big change are neglecting to look at the finer points of history.
SHELER: Moreover, she says, the Christian tradition of monogamous marriage blessed by the church is a relatively late development.
Professor COTT: It doesn’t start until the time of Christ and it is not authorized, legitimated, enforced in Europe until probably 1400 or 1500, when Catholic ecclesiastical law had some purchase over the population. The Catholic Church regards marriage as a sacrament. But historically the Protestant Church broke away from that and said marriage is not a sacrament, it is a civil matter. Historically, marriage has been all about support of children. And that is the tradition in which the United States was founded, being traditionally a Protestant country.
SHELER: But to Pastor Sam Hollo of the Westgate Church in Weston, Massachusetts, where Cheryl and Chuck will be married, it is the potential impact same-sex marriage would have on families that he finds most worrisome.
Pastor SAM HOLLO (Westgate Church): The marriage and family unit has been defined by a number of authors as basically the building block of society. If they’re broken or if they’re distorted, if they lack God’s blessing and his provision, then you wind up with a society whose building blocks are cracked, some are removed, some have been destroyed, and the effects on society will be evident, particularly over time.
Mr. DEANE: Family has been redefined. We no longer have, for various reasons, mother, father, two children. It can be now mother and two children, father two children. It can be lesbians, one child, two child[ren]. It can be gay men.
SHELER: As devout Episcopalians, Herb and Roberto wanted a church wedding.
Mr. RUSSELL: You know, I have been to a lot of weddings. Somehow being in my own wedding in a church — it is not a big wedding today, but my brother and my sister-in-law are reading the scriptures — and being a part of the ceremony is very important to us.
SHELER: The Reverend Susan Taylor, a minister in the United Church of Canada, will conduct the ceremony. Hers is one of the few churches in Canada that will marry same-sex couples.
Reverend SUE TAYLOR (United Church of Canada): Certainly in the United Church of Canada, we said that there is no difference. They are all equal and loved equally.
SHELER: In Canada, as in the United States and Europe, religious denominations are sharply divided over exactly what the Bible and Christian tradition teach concerning homosexuality.
Pastor HOLLO: Every time it is mentioned, it is mentioned as something that is contrary to God’s will. And something that isn’t just sinful but, to a degree that is called, at times, an abomination in his sight.
Rev. TAYLOR: We may take a different interpretation. And there is nothing that we have read that says we can’t do this. Others may interpret it differently, and for now, we have to respect that.
Rev. TAYLOR (During Marriage Ceremony): Roberto, will you take Herb to be your lifelong partner?
Mr. DEANE: I will.
Rev. TAYLOR. Herb, will you take Roberto to be your lifelong partner?
Mr. RUSSELL: I will.
Rev. TAYLOR: For as much as Roberto and Herb have made this solemn covenant before God and all of us here, I now declare them to be life, lifelong partners in marriage. And you may kiss one another.
SHELER: As the debate continues, the urgent and unanswered question remains whether same-sex marriage will further erode an already embattled institution or bring it new strength and relevance by expanding and redefining its borders.
Mr. RUSSELL: We are going to toast each other tonight. After this church ceremony.
Mr. DEANE: We are going to have a good time. Just like everyone else. Just like any other married couple.
SHELER: For RELIGION & ETHICS NEWSWEEKLY, I’m Jeff Sheler.