One of my very good friends was telling me about watching the VP debate last week (which was on campus, by the way — very busy times!) and being livid about Biden’s rejection of same-sex marriage. I, on the other hand, had been quite pleased with Biden’s response to the question. The funny thing is that she and I have the same basic outlook on civil rights — both believing that they should be equal for all people and all couples — so I would like to examine how it is that we could have such different reactions. A good place to start would be looking at the debate transcript in the area of interest (italics and highlighting are mine*):

IFILL: Let’s try to avoid nuance, Senator. Do you support gay marriage?

BIDEN: No. Barack Obama nor I support redefining from a civil side what constitutes marriage. We do not support that. That is basically the decision to be able to be left to faiths and people who practice their faiths the determination what you call it. The bottom line though is, and I’m glad to hear the governor, I take her at her word, obviously, that she thinks there should be no civil rights distinction — none whatsoever — between a committed gay couple and a committed heterosexual couple. If that’s the case, we really don’t have a difference.

What caught my friend’s attention, I suspect, was the “No,” and I have to say that, when combined with Palin’s line that “my answer is the same as his and it is that I do not,”˚ it sounds horrible. However, what caught my attention is what I have highlighted in red. This shows me that Biden has an extraordinarily good grasp of the legal facets of the issue, and isn’t just trying to make a quick fix. Here’s what it means:

Currently, much of the civil rights issue with same-sex couples being unable to obtain the benefits of their heterosexual counterparts stems from the convergence of religion and law. Marriage is a religious concept, and was adopted into the legal system in the same terminology for convenience’s sake. Thus we currently have a confounding of “civil union” (which is what the government offers) and “marriage” (what the church offers). Such overlap might strike the observant reader as a violation of separation between church and state.

Despite the convergence — or, rather, because of acute awareness of its import — Biden nor the government can mandate a change in the religious definition; doing so would violate freedom of religion and establish precedent for religiously-founded laws in the future. Such laws may be taken to the supreme court and struck down, but that process depends on someone actually taking each law to court, and it can take an extremely long time. In that time, such an unconstitutional law can do a lot of damage.

Biden’s phrasing here is the first steps towards excising the religious element from the state. If the terminology is clarified so that only civil unions are granted to all couples (instead of “marriage licenses”), and the green text holds true, the government can mandate that these unions be recognized in all states under all conditions. This is not, as my friend phrased it, “separate but equal;” this is true legal nondistinction.

Almost all religions will eventually concede the term “marriage.” However, that is not something our legal system can constitutionally force. What we can force is universal acknowledgment of civil rights and the legal equality of all couples. Obama and Biden propose a way to do this that looks beyond 4 or 10 years in the future, and they have my full support.

*Someday I would like to meet someone who can speak in colors. Since I don’t have synesthesia, this might be a while.

˚P.S. Palin was dishonest, actually, when she said that she doesn’t differ from Biden. Look here:

IFILL: Governor, would you support expanding that [equal rights] beyond Alaska to the rest of the nation?

PALIN: Well, not if it goes closer and closer towards redefining the traditional definition of marriage between one man and one woman. And unfortunately that’s sometimes where those steps lead.

Can you believe it? She actually said that she would only conditionally support the Constitution and the Bill of Rights! Holy sh*t that’s one scary woman!

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