Same-sex couples seek state’s blessing, not God’s

By Harold Jackson

It seems like a more recent event, but it was 12 years ago that I received the phone call.

I was at work in Baltimore. Suddenly, on the line was a voice I didn’t know telling me something I didn’t want to hear. He explained that he was a friend of my brother’s who lived in San Francisco. He said Calvin was dying of AIDS and didn’t want his family to know.

It had been an easy secret to keep. Calvin had moved to the other side of the continent after graduating from a Midwestern university. We typically saw him once a year, at Christmas.

By the time I received the phone call, Calvin was bedridden, in the last stages of the disease. Of course, I kicked myself for not picking up any signs. But sometimes you see only what you want to see. I never questioned it whenever Calvin would shake off not feeling well as the onset of the flu or a cold.


That last Christmas, I did notice his somberness (we usually kidded each other unmercifully), but attributed it to the emphasis on faith he said he had added to his life. I remember his trying to teach my children a Gospel song he said he had made up himself.

When the phone caller told me Calvin was sick, I immediately made plans to go see him. There, I met the "roommate," who I then knew was Calvin’s partner — the man who made sure he received the best home hospice care available. Only months later, Calvin died. I was glad he had someone who loved him with him during the ordeal. No one should be alone knowing death is so near.

I think of Calvin often. But he’s come to mind a lot more in recent weeks, amid news that a bill to ban gay marriage in Pennsylvania is advancing in the legislature.

It would take a change in the state constitution to make same-sex marriage illegal, an arduous process that may not be achieved. The bill’s sponsors don’t seem to care. They want to discourage any counter attempt to legalize gay marriage in Pennsylvania.

Only Massachusetts has legalized gay marriage, but several states, including New Jersey a year ago, have granted same-sex couples civil-union rights.

Civil union, though, often is no substitute for marriage. That was the finding in February of a New Jersey commission that conducted three public hearings to find out how the more than 2,000 couples who had received civil-union licenses have fared. Their anecdotes revealed common problems. For example, same-sex couples are often denied health benefits because of a provision in the federal Defense of Marriage Act. In numerous situations, hospital or social-services personnel either don’t know that they should — or simply refuse to — provide important information or assistance to a spouse in a civil union.

Perhaps, over time and with enough public education, some of these problems would go away. But homosexual couples who don’t want to wait say the real answer is marriage.

And they want it now.


Based on the way I read the Bible — which may not be the way other Christians read it — I could not accept a same-sex couple as being married in the eyes of God. But the Bible also tells me not to mix religion and government. Matthew 22:21 says: "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s."

For government, marriage represents a contract between two adults who have agreed to share a household and attendant responsibilities. There’s nothing particularly holy about having a justice of the peace in a courthouse tie the knot. It’s a legal proceeding that’s called marriage.

A religious ceremony conducted by a member of the clergy under the authority of God is more than a legal proceeding. But it’s called a marriage, too.

My church would not marry same-sex couples, and should not be forced to by government edict. But, to me, that doesn’t mean gay couples should be denied a nonreligious marriage.

Neither I nor my church would recognize them as married under God, but they don’t care about us. They care about getting the taxation, insurance and government-services benefits of being a legal pair.

Some would argue that to condone same-sex marriage in any form is to condone sin. I am no theologian, no preacher, but I do believe that we all sin and that all who don’t repent and put their faith in Christ for salvation will face the same fate. That’s gospel.

That our government gives us the freedom to sin does not absolve us from responsibility for our actions.

Even in those countries we look down on for mixing government and religion, there are sinners. Governments try, but they really can’t legislate what they believe to be moral behavior. Each person will decide what is right, what is wrong, and which path he or she prefers. No government edict will make homosexuality go away. Neither will it be discouraged by ineffective "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" rules.


I didn’t think of Calvin and his partner as married, but I never questioned that his partner should be bequeathed whatever Calvin wanted him to have. They had an understanding that was clear to me. I would never use marriage to describe their relationship, but if that’s the word needed for government to recognize a same-sex couple as a legal pair, then let it be. But leave the churches that don’t recognize those "marriages" alone.

Jackson is editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Send comments to

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