Anyone who checks Facebook with any regularity has seen the plethora of status updates, pictures, memes, and more about why the chief noisemakers at Chick-fil-A are either good or bad in condemning same-sex marriage. Even those who get their news from more traditional sources have certainly seen articles referencing the “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day” which took place on August 1st. Encouraged by the likes of conservatives such as Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, the latter of whom visited a restaurant just a few miles from my house (picture below), hordes of people filled locations across the country in support of executive Dan Cathy’s remarks in favor of traditional marriage. Some opponents are even planning a “kiss-in” to counter the day of support, emulating the civil rights sit-ins of a half-century past.
What many on both sides fail to comprehend is the complexity of marriage and the role certain institutions have in defining and facilitating marriage. Many observers on both sides of the issue see Cathy’s statement as a political one, while a smaller number see it as religious. In reality, it’s some of both, although the political side of things tend to be overstated by those who see marriage as a government contract rather than the religious covenant it is.
The role of government is not to decide what the definition of marriage is. That responsibility falls in the hands of ministers and other religious officials. Government’s role is where marriage has a legal counterpart, such as co-ownership of property, visitation rights, and many financial matters. This is where government must choose the cases in which to grant two individuals these legal rights, in particular whether to include two individuals of the same gender or merely adhere to the traditional definition as between a man and a woman.
Government has historically been a foe of marriage equality, at times even more so than religious institutions. One need look only to the Jim Crow era as an example. Marriage licenses were granted only to same-race couples to prevent interracial marriage. Now is the perfect time for governments to change that trend, setting themselves ahead of the status quo and not behind.
This is where a consensus can be reached. If government only defines marriage in a legal sense, it would be in the best interest of those interested in preserving traditional marriage to influence their religious leaders rather than the elected ones. Government can then grant legal marriages to same-sex couples to allow them full marriage rights under the law without changing the definition of marriage.
With this synthesis in place, it leaves the question of which governments have which role in marriage. States should have the predominant authority under the Constitution, but the federal government can regulate how the states author and implement their laws. The main protection is the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. I think it is quite possible that a court will rule that this protects marriage (in a legal sense) between straight and gay couples equally. If that is to be the case, then Congress can apply this amendment to the states by passing an equal marriage rights bill similar to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 or simply by the decree of the Court on the issue.
It is clear that the recent bursts of patronage to Chick-fil-A restaurants do not demonstrate an adequate comprehension of the complexity behind marriage. Individuals on both sides should seek to understand more fully the meaning of marriage from both the legal and religious standpoints so they can seek to be understood in a more responsible manner.