Columbia, SC — I agree with House Judiciary Chairman Greg Delleney, who said recently that the question of whether to grant equal rights for legally married, same-sex couples living in our state “is going to boil down to a matter of religious liberty.” Perhaps ironically, that’s also the basis for my argument as to why same-sex couples should be granted civil recognition in our state for their civil marriages.
For far too long across our country and here in South Carolina, we have allowed elected officials and policy makers to impose their religious views about civil marriage laws onto the rest of us. I am not talking about religious marriage ceremonies conducted by faith leaders or within sacred buildings; I am talking about legal rights and benefits granted by our government through civil marriages.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June in United States v. Windsor that the federal government could not distinguish between legally married heterosexual couples and legally married same-sex couples. In short, the freedom to marry the person you choose is one of our basic rights in this country, just like our precious right to freedom of speech and the equally important freedom of religion and religious expression.
This is where things get tricky. More than 30 states have laws, and in some cases state constitutional amendments, that blanket a certain religious or moral standard of marriage and the definition of “spouse” on all couples, regardless of how they believe marriage should be recognized.
By letting the majority vote on the rights of the minority, we are letting the rights of those couples be determined not by the promise of equal protection under the U.S. Constitution but by the religious or moral beliefs of others, who ultimately stand to lose nothing in the matter. What about religious freedom for same-sex couples?
In a recent ruling on Oklahoma’s constitutional amendment, U.S. District Judge Terrance Kern wrote: “Equal protection is at the very heart of our legal system and central to our consent to be governed. It is not a scarce commodity to be meted out begrudgingly or in short portions. Therefore, the majority view in Oklahoma must give way to individual constitutional rights.” The same could be said of the South Carolinians who voted to deny same-sex couples their right to marry in our state.
Gov. Nikki Halley likes to point out that in 2006, 78 percent of voters wrote their views into our state constitution, even though the census showed there were 7,214 same-sex households living in South Carolina in 2010. What about religious freedom of those 7,214 couples to legally marry?
If we truly hope to live in a nation and a state where all individuals have a constitutional right to live their lives with freedom and dignity in the practice of their chosen religion, then the question about whether people should be able to marry the person they desire does indeed “boil down to a matter of religious liberty” as Rep. Delleney stated.
This means that as a gay man, I deserve the religious and civil liberty to marry the man I love, call him “spouse” and have that marriage treated equally under the laws of both the United States and the state of South Carolina.
Mr. Wilson is executive director of S.C. Equality, which works for civil and human rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender South Carolinians. Contact him at email@example.com.