Usually, when I go on a trip outside of the United States, I write a column about the church-state relationship in whatever place I have visited.
I did return to Scotland recently, leaving the United States on May 23. In advance of the flight, I called my daughter to wish her a happy birthday and, since things have been kind of quiet on the Scottish church-state front lately, boned up on the Irish referendum on marriage equality.
The vote had just taken place as I arrived in that part of the world. Pollsters thought the results might be close, in no small measure because of the purported clout of the Roman Catholic Church in the Emerald Isle. But the vote was lop-sided: Sixty-two percent of Irish voters supported the right of couples to marry regardless of gender.
The vote breakdown was interesting: Dublin voters backed the measure solidly, but they had help from residents of smaller cities and even some rural areas. The BBC predictably had lots of comments from supporters of the effort; the opponents almost universally cited some theological position.
One tour we took even made me think I might be at one of those “Values Voters Summits” I try to get to each fall in Washington. My wife and I are suckers for “ghost tours” (even though we’re skeptical of claims of ghastly apparitions, even in Edinburgh).
A number of tour companies claim to have exclusive “key” access to a mysterious “underground city” in which strange things happened in the 1800s and where, even today, paranormal experiences are allegedly occurring.
What you end up seeing is a dank property several feet below sea level in a basement under a collection of bars and kilt shops (no, I didn’t buy a kilt). Each firm has “special” access to the portion they rent. There apparently were people who lived in underground housing, but I’m not sure how. It was not a particularly nice or fragrant space. Most of the other information seems dubious, but some of the jokes are good.
When we emerged from our tour, we saw members of the Scottish equivalent of the American Religious Right protesting with the familiar John 3:16 signs. I wasn’t exactly certain what they were upset about, but I assumed it was the occult nature of the attraction.
Some of the archaeological sites, particularly on the northernmost islands in Scotland, were very engaging. They are intriguing examples of pre-Stonehenge creations that took a vast amount of time to construct and generally seemed to have some spiritual significance.
Before I left the United States, there was an escalating amount of rhetoric from the aforementioned Religious Right regarding the (as of this writing) anticipated ruling on marriage equality. The method the right uses to determine public opinion is curious: They decide that when referenda are passed to prohibit same-sex marriage, it is proof that a majority of Americans feel that way. So, they argue, five members of the Supreme Court should not be able to overthrow the “will of the people.” In fact, the latest public opinion polls show support in this country for marriage equality to be at roughly 58 percent – a number within the “margin of error” of the Irish outcome.
The other issue noted by the European press while I was over there was that American far-right activists were vowing to fight any pro-marriage equality ruling. Although there is little specific information about how this new “Civil War” (as James Dobson put it) would play out, the nearly apocalyptic language being used seems way beyond the pale.
We do anticipate that there will be a slew of bills in Congress and state legislatures that seek to permit people with religious objections to even the most tangential connection to some part of the marriage process to refuse to get involved. We’ve seen, of course, florists, bakers, photographers, wedding DJs and others publicly attempting to explain why they shouldn’t have to serve gay people as a matter of conscience.
There really is something bizarre about the premise of this opposition. This was perhaps articulated most succinctly and most oddly by an opposite-sex Australian couple, who announced that if the dreaded same-sex marriage came to pass Down Under, they would immediately get a divorce. They claimed that their marriage would be rendered “meaningless” under those circumstances.
I have been an advocate of marriage equality since the 1970s, long before I got to Americans United, and I have never figured out how the actions of one group of would-be couples would ever have an impact on my own now 45-year-long marriage.
The Supreme Court can only approve same-sex marriage as a government function. Ministers, rabbis, priests, imams and other clergy will always have the right to decline to officiate if such ceremonies offend their theology.
In light of this, marriage equality hardly seems to interfere with anybody else’s relationship. If your marriage is so fragile that it is affected by what a couple down the street is doing, you might seriously need to find some counseling to strengthen it right away.
Barry W. Lynn is executive director of Americans United for Separation of Church and State.