Civil Rights & Same-Sex Marriage


Civil Rights March on Washington, leaders marc...

Civil Rights March on Washington, leaders marching from the Washington Monument to the Lincoln Memorial (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

After President Obama made his support of same-sex marriage clear, he received criticism from what some might regard as a surprising direction. To be specific, some leaders in the black community have spoken out against Obama’s position.  For example, Reverend William Owens, the president of the Coalition of African-American Pastors said that “by embracing gay marriage, President Obama is leading the country down an immoral path.”

Owens based his position on his view that same-sex marriage is “simply wrong” and that it is a mistake to consider same-sex marriage as a civil right. He also claims that the Black Church must oppose it because “the Black Church has always been the conscience of America.” Because of this view, he called upon black pastors and Christians to cease supporting Obama for as long as the President accepts same-sex marriage. Owens seems to claim that the President has taken this  stance in favor of same-sex marriage in order to get the support (and money) of the “Hollywood folks.” Clearly, this matter raises some interesting philosophical points.

Not surprisingly, those in favor of same-sex marriage often draw an analogy between the civil rights movement of the 1960s and the present day movement to ensure equal rights for homosexuals. More specifically, it is common for supporters of same-sex marriage to draw a comparison between same-sex marriage and mixed-race marriages. In the United States, it was not until the case of Loving v. Virginia in 1967 that laws against inter-racial marriages were deemed unconstitutional. Even now, some people still oppose mixed race marriage because they regard it as immoral and unnatural.

On the face of it, mixed-race and same-sex marriages seem morally analogous. After all, in both cases people are denied the right to marry based on the person they want to marry being the “wrong” sort of person: either the wrong race or the wrong sex. Those who favor allowing mixed-race marriages contend that race should not be a relevant factor in determining who one should be allowed to marry. In the case of those who favor same-sex marriage, it is contended that a person’s sex should not be a relevant factor in determining who one should be allowed to marry.


NEW YORK, NY - JUNE 26:  Marchers hold signs t...

NEW YORK, NY – JUNE 26: Marchers hold signs thanking Governor Mario Cuomo for keeping his campaign promise and legalizing Same-Sex Marriage during the 2011 NYC LGBT Pride March on the streets of Manhattan on June 26, 2011 in New York City. Thousands of revelers had reason to celebrate since New York state legislators approved a bill legalizing same-sex marriage which Governor Cuomo signed in to law on Friday June 24. (Image credit: Getty Images via @daylife)


Given the apparent similarity between the two situations, it is tempting to think that those who supported the civil rights movement and support (or at least tolerate) mixed-race marriage should also, on the basis of consistency, support the same-sex marriage movement.

However, as noted above, this is not always the case and some people (such as Owens) who clearly support civil rights just as clearly oppose same-sex marriage. There is, of course, a reasonable question as to whether or not this difference is morally justified.

Owens, as noted above, takes the strategy of claiming that same-sex marriage is immoral and hence should not be supported. Given his remarks about civil rights, he presumably believes that the civil rights movement was morally good. As such, grounds are needed for distinguishing between the goodness of the civil rights movement and the alleged evil of same-sex marriage.

One stock approach is to use the religious argument against same-sex marriage. Among Christian thinkers, the basis for the religious objection is typically and famously found in Leviticus. Naturally, there must also be a mixing of norms (see my Moral Methods book) from the religious claim that homosexuality is an abomination to the moral claim that homosexuality (and thus same-sex marriage) is morally wrong. Since I argue about this general point at length in my book For Better or Worse Reasoning, I will focus on three specific points here.

The first is that basing the opposition to same sex-marriage on religious grounds runs into the problem that the same text used to attack same-sex marriage also contains passages that seem to support slavery and inequality, something that would be rather inimical to the views of those who support the equality of the civil rights movement.

The second, which is a related point, is that if same-sex marriage is opposed on religious grounds, then consistency requires that the other religious rules be applied to require or forbid as appropriate. This is an instance of a rather general problem of using religion as the basis for ethics, namely the problem that when people use religion to justify or condemn one practice, they selectively ignore parts of the text that condemn or justify other practices.

For example, consider the commandment that requires keeping the Sabbath. This, unlike the short line in Leviticus, is one of the ten major rules. However, this commandment is routinely and regularly ignored by the same people who oppose same-sex marriage, as are many other rules (such as those regarding usury and the stoning of disobedient children).If it is argued that these other rules should be ignored because of changing times or on some other grounds, the same sorts of reasons can presumably be given in regards to Leviticus and thus the religious foundation of the argument against same-sex marriage can be undercut. Of course, it could be argued that Leviticus should be honored while other rules can be ignored, but the challenge lies in doing this selective ignoring in a principled manner rather than merely on the basis of prejudice and convenience.

A third point is that religious arguments were used in support of slavery, against the civil rights movement and against mixed-race marriages. As such, those who would use religious arguments against same-sex marriage while wanting to hold to civil rights will need to be careful to show that their religious arguments against same-sex marriage are legitimate while the religious based opposition to civil rights was in error and, of course, that the religious based support of civil rights was in the right. This could be done, but the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who want to support civil rights while also opposing same-sex marriage.

In light of the above, the religious based approach does not seem to be a particularly viable means of condemning same-sex marriage while at the same time supporting civil rights.

A second common way to argue against same-sex marriage is to make an appeal to tradition. That is, what is claimed to be traditional marriage is good and right because it is (allegedly) traditional. One obvious problem with this approach is that an appeal to tradition is a fallacy. Another problem with this, at least for those who oppose same-sex marriage while favoring civil rights is that the civil rights movement was opposed on the grounds of tradition and it, obviously enough, involved a clear break with the traditions of racism and unequal rights. As such, appealing to tradition is hardly a viable option for those who want to oppose same-sex marriage while supporting civil rights. The same sort of problem arises with appealing to common practice and appealing to belief. Both of these are logical fallacies and both were employed to argue against civil rights. As such, these do not serve as viable ways to argue against same-sex marriage while supporting civil rights.

Naturally, these approaches are not the only avenues to arguing that same-sex marriage is morally wrong. However, these other arguments also certainly seem to fail, as I argue in my For Better or Worse Reasoning. Unlike some opponents of same-sex marriage, those who support civil rights face the added burden of reconciling their arguments against same-sex marriage with their support of civil rights. For example, if someone argues in favor of civil rights on the basis of the principle of equality, s/he would need to argue why this principle applies to civil rights but does not apply to same-sex marriage. While I will not claim that this is impossible, the burden of proof would seem to rest on those who wish to support civil rights but also wish to oppose same-sex marriage.

Another possible approach is to argue that there is an important relevant difference between the civil rights movement and the matter of same-sex marriage. One plausible way to do this is to note that civil rights should be seen as relating to factors like race while same-sex marriage is (obviously) a matter of sexual orientation. One stock argument is that race is not a matter of choice and hence discrimination against people based on race is wrong. Since the traditional civil rights focus on race, supporting these civil rights would thus seem right. In contrast, it could be argued that sexual orientation is a matter of choice and hence a person could chose to be straight and thus be able to marry someone of the opposite sex. In contrast, a person cannot elect to not be black and hence it makes sense to have civil rights extend to people regardless of race. In contrast, there is no such obligation to people who elect to be gay. There is also the point that while people cannot, in general, easily hide their race, they can easily hide their sexual orientation. Hence, features that cannot be hidden should be protected, while those that can need not be protected.

One obvious objection to this approach is that that being gay is no more a matter of choice than is being black or being a woman. As such, the choice argument would not hold. Another obvious objection is that the mere fact that a person can conceal something about themselves hardly seems to justify not extending rights to them. After all, just because some black people can “pass” for white does not entail that they are not entitled to equal civil rights. After all, they would still need the protection of those rights if they were outed as black. Likewise, the fact that a gay person can pass as straight does not mean that they do not need their rights protected. After all, they can be outed.

Another approach is to argue that while being of a certain race or sex (male or female) is not immoral, being gay is. This would thus provide the needed relevant difference to allow a person to support civil rights while still opposing same-sex marriage.

One obvious concern with this approach is that those who oppose civil rights for minorities or women would argue that minorities or women are inferior to, for example, white men and are not entitled to the same rights. In the case of same-sex marriage, the idea is that people who are gay are morally inferior to straight people and thus not entitled to the same rights, most especially marriage rights. As such, those who support minorities or women having civil rights while opposing the extension of marriage rights to same-sex couples need to show that there is a difference between homosexuals and other people that warrants the difference in treatment.

In the case of people who otherwise support civil rights, such as Owens, the burden of proof would appear to be on them to show that while certain people should have full civil rights other people should be denied the right to marry.

There is, of course, also the issue of whether or not marriage rights should be denied to people who are immoral. Interestingly enough, other civil rights do not seem to rest on the person being moral. As I have argued in Better or Worse Reasoning, there is not a general moral requirement for marriage, So, for example, a serial killer can legally marry a murderer, provided that they are different sexes. As such, there seems to be no general grounds for denying marriage rights to same-sex couples, even if it is assumed that being gay in and of itself makes a person morally evil.

It could be argued that marriage rights are, in fact, denied to people who are immoral (or who want to engage in immoral activities). Pedophiles are denied the right to marry underage children, people who are fond of animals are denied the right to marry animals, close relatives are denied the right to marry, necrophiliacs are denied the right to marry corpses and so on. However, this point can easily be countered and I do so in my For Better or Worse Reasoning. After all, there are good moral arguments against marrying children, corpses and animals, mainly based on the obvious notion that they cannot provide consent. The same arguments do not, however, hold against same-sex couples.

On the face of it, it seems rather challenging for a person to consistently support civil rights while at the same time opposing same-sex marriage rights. While clearly not impossible, it is clear that the burden of proof rests on those who wish to defend civil rights for themselves while not extending those rights to others they regard as immoral or inferior.

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  1. Too many valid points to argue. The fundamental problem in discussing same sex marriage with its opponents is that reason is a stranger to them.

    From an ethical viewpoint the question posed may be, “What choices should people be allowed and denied?”

    We have many gay and lesbian couples in our church, some married, others not, and they are as committed to one another as the hetero couples, married or not.

    The arguments against allowing same sex marriage are irrational.

  2. In places where there is civil union already and as the difference between those and ordinary civil marriages is simply a matter of nomenclature then why bother? Should philosophers be getting involved in what is essentially a re-branding marketing exercise? Here there is a difference which makes no difference. Simply hand waving and saying that a civil union is not a marriage won’t do unless you can say what that difference is.

  3. It just occurred to me: Could this be the Rev.Wright’s revenge?

  4. Gordon,

    True-it is not so much a matter of “same sex marriage or not” but a more general matter of liberties and restrictions. I tend to follow a principle that restrictions should only be imposed to prevent actual harm, so I favor allowing same-sex marriage. Naturally, if it can be shown that allowing same-sex marriage would result in deaths, cancer, environmental pollution, diabetes, a super nova, or such, then I would be against it.

    I do think that some opponents of same-sex marriage are sincere and acting in accord with their conscience rather than mere malice. But, as you note, there seems to be a dearth of solid arguments against it.

  5. Michael,

    While it does not matter to me personally, for some folks there is an important distinction between civil unions and marriage. For example, limiting same-sex couples to civil unions can be seen as denying them the full rights of a citizen.

  6. Michael,

    Interesting. I see a movie idea here. I’ll get Michael Bay on the phone. Now we just need a title… :)

  7. Mike:
    You evidently feel that there is a difference between a civil union and a civil marriage but you haven’t said where in real terms it lies. You may choose to call a certain event a game and I a contest but that does not change the rules etc. of what has taken place. I would be perfectly happy to call a legal marriage a civil union. Nothing would thereby be changed in my opinion.

  8. Michael Reidy,

    I’d probably say that “civil union” and “civil marriage” refer to the same thing, although it is easy to imagine coming up with a distinction. However, I would easily accept a difference between civil unions and marriages, especially if we were talking about religious based marriage. After all, a civil union would seem to be a purely secular and legal union and a religious marriage would be, well, religiously based and perhaps could have no legal status.

  9. Mike & Michael: Irrespective of the label, the issue here is whether same sex couples can agree to form a personal union with all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of heterosexual couples. If this was possible here, our same sex couples wouldn’t have to fly cross country to get ‘married.’

  10. Michael Reidy – It isn’t that the difference between civil unions and marriage is a feeling. It is a fact.

    1. Civil Unions are on a per state basis. Not all states recognize civil unions. Marriage is federally recognized.

    2. Since civil unions are not federally recognized, certain federal benefits may not be extended to those in a civil union. One example is extended leave from work to take care of one’s domestic partner should she / he fall ill. Civil unions are also not extended the right to sponsor a partner for immigration purposes.

    3. In a civil union, partners may not joint file their federal taxes, and may not be able to joint file state taxes depending on the state.

    This is a short factual list of how very different marriage and civil unions are. To say that civil union and marriage are the same would be false.

    Thank you for your post Michael L. I bought “For Better or Worse Reasoning”. Still reading it, but so far I am impressed by your objectivity on the issue.

  11. Michael Coen,

    Thanks for buying my book. I did try to be objective in my assessment, mainly because the issue is generally not addressed objectively.

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