On Monday, February 13, 2006 my partner and I, along with several other couples, went to the Richland County courthouse here in South Carolina to apply for a marriage license. This is the third time in as many years that we’ve visited the courthouse as part of national Marriage Equality Week events. It’s the third time we’ve been politely turned away because my partner and I are both women. There is a reason we go every year to the courthouse and not the church house – because marriage is a civil right – not a religious one. Atheists and agnostics get married every single day without ever involving a member of the clergy. We go to the courthouse because my partner and I want our government to recognize our relationship. We don’t need a church to tell us what we already know – that God has recognized our union.
Those who oppose our right to a government-sanctioned marriage complain that same-gender marriage is wrong because “homosexuality is a sin.” I dare say that adultery, murder, lying, cheating and stealing are all sins, no matter what your sexual orientation. Yet, if you are a heterosexual and sin in these types of ways, the government still recognizes your right to get married. The right of marriage – indeed, no civil right – is denied on the basis of whether some church or clergy person deems you a sinner. If civil rights turned on the question of sin – I fear that none of us would meet the qualifications.
If the appeal to sin isn’t convincing, then those who oppose marriage equality say, “Well, you simply can’t be allowed to change the definition of marriage because you want to.” They act as if the definition of marriage has never changed, but it has. At one time the definition of marriage was one man and many women, but that changed. At one time the definition of marriage was one man and one woman, but that woman was the man’s property with no rights of her own, but that has changed. At one time the definition of marriage was one man and one woman as long as they are the same race, but that has changed. At one time the definition of marriage was one man and one woman coming together for the sake of enlarging a family’s land holdings or improving a family’s social status and had nothing whatsoever to do with love, but that has changed. So, yes, we certainly can be allowed to change the definition of marriage because the definition of marriage has been changed many times by the heterosexuals who have engaged in it over the millennia.
What shouldn’t be changed on a whim, however, is a state constitution which is inherently designed to grant rights, not to take them away simply because it’s a politically popular thing to do. Should the family discrimination amendment pass this coming November in our state it will relegate one section of the population, and their children, to second class citizenship. This is discrimination in its purest form, and no fair-minded American supports any form of discrimination.
If passed, this amendment will make it legal for the government to discriminate against me and my partner. If one of us should die, the government is free to step in and take property, levy taxes and destroy everything we have worked to build over the years, simply because, under the law, we are strangers. If we were able to legally marry we could enjoy each other’s health insurance, make medical decisions for one another, enjoy each other’s social security benefits and be able to directly inherit each other’s property without going through a legal maze.
We’re told we can go to a lawyer and get legal papers, wills and powers of attorney that can approximate marriage rights. But, those documents are cold comfort when you realize that we are only one ornery relative away from total financial devastation. A rancher in Oklahoma recently learned this the hard way when his partner died. They had all those documents, but his partner’s cousins challenged those documents and won, leaving this man not only without the partner he loved, but without the life they had built together. Equality in marriage would have prevented this tragedy.
It’s a potential tragedy faced by thousands of South Carolina residents today. Census data show South Carolina is fourth in the nation for same-gender couples raising children and third in the nation for African-American same-gender couples raising children. Without a marriage license from the state they could lose their homes, their livelihoods and even their children in the blink of an eye because of government or family intrusion. It’s time that voters step up and say no to this kind of discrimination. It’s time for South Carolina to reject this amendment and send the message that what is important to the people of this state is protecting all families.
Founder of Motley Mystic and the Jubilee! Circle interfaith spiritual community In Columbia, S.C., Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Founder and Editor Emeritus of Whosoever, she earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained by Gentle Spirit Christian Church in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She is also a musician and animal lover.