It’s not just speech…

When I proposed to Michael, I didn’t ask him to move in with me. He had said “yes” to my proposal, but he lived and worked in a different city, and my late husband had died less than a year before, so we were both a little nervous about rushing into things. Therefore, at the time of the proposal, we agreed we’d wait a year before taking the more drastic step.

But about six months later, one of his housemates started behaving strangely, such as going through Michael’s stuff when he was away (and more creepy things). Suddenly the thought of Michael being there was completely unacceptable. I didn’t care if it seemed like we were rushing, all I could think of was that I needed to get him somewhere safe.

Never mind that he, as one friend recently described him, is “the most capable person I’ve ever known.” Never mind that his job history has included being a bouncer at a bar, or that his past hobbies included bull-riding. No matter how tough, smart, or capable he is, the thought of him being in an unsafe place made me a bit irrational.

Fourteen-and-a-half years later, we’re still together—happily so. I guess we weren’t rushing, eh?

During that time, we’ve registered our domestic partnership—first with the city, because the state didn’t allow it. Then later, once the state did allow it, with the state. Thanks to a voter-approved referendum, in our state that partnership now carries all the legal rights and responsibilities of marriage. So we can jointly own property, we are allowed to make medical decision for each other if one of us in incapacitated (assuming we don’t run into a hospital worker who doesn’t understand what the domestic partnership law means), and if one of us dies, the survivor doesn’t have to produce proof that he paid for half or more of anything or lose it to the other’s blood relatives (because it’s all by default community property).

Unfortunately, even in a state with strong domestic partner laws, there are still a lot of inequalities.

I’m older than Michael, and have some chronic health issues. It is likely he will outlive me. By chance, I also earn more money than he does. If something were to happen to me, he would be put in a financial bind. Yes, I have life insurance, so there will be a bit of a cushion, but because what we have isn’t recognized on the federal level as a marriage, he would not be entitled to survivor benefits from social security. If he remains single after my death, when he decides to retire, his benefits will be calculated solely on his own earnings.

If our relationship was legally recognized, all of that changes. He would be entitled to survivor benefits under some circumstances. When it came time to retire, he would be entitled to benefits based on my years of earning.

Before you make an argument about the sanctity of marriage, consider this: if, on my deathbed, I was to have a quicky marriage with a woman someone selects completely randomly, the ceremony and signing completed literally seconds before my death, she would be entitled to all those benefits. Never mind that we didn’t know each other. Never mind that no defininition of sacred would encompass that random person standing by my hospital bed.

Legal marriage isn’t about sanctity. Legal marriage isn’t about forcing churches to do anything. Right now, two people who have been divorced can legally marry in all fifty states (so long as they are opposite gender). If they ask a Catholic priest to perform the ceremony, he will turn them down, because the church doesn’t believe in divorce. It happens a lot. The fact that the law recognizes re-marriages has not and will not open the church to being sued. Just as a church can choose not to perform a wedding if, for example, one of the members belongs to a completely different faith.

And before you bring up that story about the “church” that got in trouble about a same sex marriage a couple years ago: 1) it wasn’t a church, it was a separate business set up by a ministry as a fundraising activity, 2) when they set up the business, they applied for an exemption from paying property taxes on a small park and pavilion that they intended to rent out for events, 3) the exemption required them to sign an agreement which explicitly said that they would run the business as a public accomodation, and that they would not refuse to rent to any member of the public on the basis of race, religion, political affiliation, creed, ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation, 4) this agreement that they signed had to be renewed every year, and they had to, every year, re-affirm that they would not refuse to rent the park and pavilion to anyone on the basis of race, religion, political affiliation, creed, gender, or sexual orientation or the park and pavilion would cease to be tax exempt.

And then they told a lesbian couple that the couple could not rent the pavillion because they were opposed to same sex marriage and anything like it.

That’s when the one selected parcel of land lost its tax exemption. The parent ministry was not fined, it did not lose its tax exempt status. The church that many members belonged to did not lose its tax exempt status and did not face any fines or retribution. The only thing that happened was that the side business had to start paying taxes, just like any other business.

It is true that as marriage equality moves forward at the state level, people who don’t approve of it will see neighbors, co-workers, and strangers enter into legal marriages and in legal ways be treated just like the other kinds of marriage. That will include, sometimes, having to do business with these couples and treat them, in terms of publicly transacted business and such, just like any other married couple. Which will make them uncomfortable.

Being comfortable is not a legal right.

Asking the law to allow you to discriminate is not just speech. Preventing someone from renting a home is not just speech. Barring someone from the hospital bedside of their partner is not just speech. Barring some couples from tax benefits is not just speech. Encouraging parents to literally throw their gay, lesbian, or bisexual teen-agers out on the street—telling them that abandoning their own children and making them homeless is the correct, biblical thing to do—is not just speech.

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