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Opinion

Keep religion out of the marriage debate

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BY NOW, most New Hampshire citizens are well aware that the state legislature will vote on a bill to repeal the Marriage Equality Act of 2009. Polling data, letters to the editor, news articles, and editorials have all filled our newspapers and airwaves, and legislators are being lobbied by both proponents and opponents. Each side seems to take a different tack - from economics to civil rights, from basic fairness to family values, and, of course, the big bogeyman in these debates, religion. But as someone who has spent his life in religious life, I believe it has no place in this public policy debate.

While we are “one nation under God,’’ no one set of religious values is or ever has been the basis of the law of our land. Theological questions about same-sex marriage may be an issue for many lawmakers, and while I respect their faith, I want them to consider that these important religious questions should remain in the religious sphere and out of the State House.

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That’s because while our government cannot impede the right to the free exercise of religion, no particular religion has the right to impose its values on our society. In fact, different religions view this matter differently, with some embracing their gay and lesbian congregants who want to join in marriage, and others rejecting it altogether. What we do know, however, is that organized religion has a way of changing and evolving as well in responding to society and to its own internal pressures. This is not a static issue. Indeed, if we had ceded civil rights to religious objections in the 1960s, it would still be legal to prohibit interracial couples from marrying in our country.

Instead, policymakers need to be reminded that the United States is not a nation founded on religion: We are a nation founded on the rights of individuals and on the basic premise that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’’

In a democracy, all citizens are treated equally. Denying rights to same-sex couples is just as wrong as denying rights to citizens because of gender, race, religious choice, or disability, even if for religious reasons. In other parts of the world, basic human rights are not guaranteed, but in this country we strive to make them so, and to steadfastly protect the rights of minorities. Anything less is contrary to all the religious values I know of and cherish.

Since passage of the Marriage Equality Act of 2009, same-sex couples in New Hampshire have had the same rights as heterosexual married couples when it comes to tax benefits, inheritance rights, property ownership, child custody, power of attorney, and so on. Repealing the 2009 law will take these basic freedoms - these “unalienable rights’’ - away from New Hampshire families.

There is no moral, logical, economic, or legal reason that this law, which almost 4000 individuals have now taken advantage of, should not be left in place. Sixty-four percent of our fellow citizens agree, according to a recent statewide survey. The law has strengthened New Hampshire families, not harmed them, and that’s a basic tenet of all major religions.

The law has strengthened New Hampshire families, not harmed them, and that’s a basic tenet of all major religions.

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Some lawmakers suggest that this bill is a compromise by granting gay and lesbian couples civil unions. But there’s a fundamental problem with that - civil unions are not equal to marriage and in New Hampshire we don’t treat one group of citizens one way and another group another way. Marriage equality doesn’t need to be “fixed’’ because nothing replaces equality. Nothing.

The Right Rev. Gene Robinson is the Episcopal Bishop of New Hampshire. He is the Episcopal Church’s first openly gay bishop.
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