John McIntyre, whom James Wolcott calls "the Dave Brubeck of the art and craft of copy editing," writes on language, editing, journalism, and random topics. Identifying his errors relieves him of the burden of omniscience. Write to, befriend at Facebook, or follow at Twitter: @johnemcintyre. The original site,, at, and now at

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

How I get myself in trouble

I was simply taking a break from an editing project to check Facebook when I saw a post from one of my Facebook friends/acquaintances about an opinion by Maryland’s attorney general that it may be legal for Maryland to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states. “What do you think of this?” the friend asked.

So I wrote: “It's plainly a civil rights issue, and lining up with the precedent of the states that refused to recognize interracial marriages would not be something to look back on with pride.”

A little later someone else posted this response: “Marriage is Biblically defined as between one man and one woman. Gay marriage should not be compared to interracial marriage for many reasons. Homosexuality is a crime and should be punishable. It is not a civil right. One clearly cannot control his ethnicity unless one chooses to surgically alter his skin like the late pervert Michael Jackon. Homosexuality is learned behavior and it is not genetic.”

So I said further, along these lines:

The kind of marriage under discussion is civil marriage — secular, not religious. No church is compelled to recognize gay unions, though some do. Marriage has always been about more than the sexual activity of the participants. It is, for one, about property (read Jane Austen), and it is about the state’s concern with property and insurance and the protection of minor children and other matters.

The point at issue is whether one state should honor what is legal in other states, which is why the Constitution has a “full faith and credit clause,” so that we don’t wind up a bunch of minor duchies and princedoms with conflicting laws, like Germany before unification.

The other issues the commenter raises ignore what you might call facts. Homosexuality is not illegal. It is not, psychiatry has formally determined, a mental illness. Specific behavior, yes, is learned, but there is an increasing body of scientific research that indicates that homosexuality is an inborn trait.

Moreover, it should be obvious to everyone by now that arguing from Leviticus makes more problems than it solves. Both the Old Testament and the New condone slavery — as Maryland once did. The Old Testament permits divorce, but the New Testament forbids it; how should our lawmakers be guided? Should the General Assembly ban the harvesting of crabs because the dietary code of the Old Testament forbids shellfish?

I mentioned the interracial marriage issue because at one time, in living memory, states that denied black people full civil rights were allowed to refuse to recognize marriages between black and white people performed in other states. It was not something of which to be proud today, and to allow an analogous prejudice to copy that pattern will not be something to boast about to our descendants.


  1. Anyway, it's simply false that the Bible defines marriage as "one man, one woman". Many of the patriarchs had two or more wives, and Solomon had a whole passel of 'em.

  2. One of the most compelling and cogent arguments I've yet read. Well-said, sir.

  3. Let me put it more briefly. Mr. Pasalic, whom I quoted above, does not like gay people. He does not have to. He can decline to associate with them in his private life (though he may well associate with many gay people unwittingly). The basic point, the one that puts recognition of gay marriage on the same basis as all the other civil rights issues, is this:

    Does he get to deny an entire class of people equal protection under the law simply because he dislikes them?

  4. I seem to recall, back when I was responsible for the coverage of such things, that Maryland was the first state to outlaw interracial unions and the last to drop the ban.

    I seem to further recall that Leviticus also prohibits the wearing of cotton-polyester blends. If we are unfortunate enough to end up in hell, that will explain all the used car dealers there with us.

  5. I'd go a step further, by the way, and note that marriage is fundamentally a basket of rights - to inherit property, make medical decisions etc. - most of which can be assembled one-by-one through power of attorney filings, etc. One that can't, I believe, is filing joint tax returns. Why should one's sexuality determine one's tax bracket?

  6. I definitely admire you as a copy editor, and as a writer, and as A PERSON.

    It was great. Thank you!

  7. Well written John.

    If it is possible to trump the entire argument with a biblical reference I suggest;

    "Give not that which is holy unto the dogs, neither cast ye your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn again and rend you." - KJV, Matthew 7:6

    One of the continuing burdens of citizenship is thoughtful advocacy.

    I do find it provoking when the religious insist that government adhere to their beliefs rather than allow then to peacefully coexist with contrary opinions.

  8. Also: get better, don't die, take your toddy and rest warm...

    Your fans need you. ;)

  9. DC's council passed a law recognizing gay marriages performed in states where it's legal. (I'm a little fuzzy on the ins and outs of this, but I think gay marriage itself still isn't legal in DC.) Some who object to this demanded a referendum on this, arguing that it was imposed on the people, who didn't get to vote on it. The elections board has refused several requests to put this on the ballot, saying civil rights issues can't be subject to vote. Weren't civil rights laws "imposed" on local jurisdictions by the federal government? Imagine if federal civil rights laws were put to a vote in many locales.

  10. I wish I could keep you in my pocket and take you out whenever I needed to present a fine sounding argument.

  11. "Does he get to deny an entire class of people equal protection under the law simply because he dislikes them?"

    Admit it, we could all be tempted to do just that at times if we could. Like the Lord High Executioner in The Mikado: "I've got a little list ..."

  12. “It's plainly a civil rights issue, and lining up with the precedent of the [states, countries or whatever] that refused to recognize [interracial marriages and other matters controversial in the eyes of those who are opposed] would not be something to look back on with pride.”
    Well said that man. Forgive me for taking the liberty of expanding your argument, but I think it an important one. And you often know something is wrong simply because the person who says it is right is always wrong.

  13. We hear a lot from those who would make homosexuality a crime, but they seem strangely silent on the subject of adultery. A clear case of “cherry picking”.

  14. I've long thought that language is part of the problem here. People get extraordinarily het up about marriage because they see it as a religious construct; but that is only true for marriages performed in churches. The state has an interest in promoting stable family structures, and thus it sanctions marriages, but there is no particular reason (other than custom) that the church and state need to line up on their respective definitions of marriage. And in fact, they don't; a divorced person may remarry in any state, but not necessarily in the Catholic Church.

    There is no other institution save marriage in which religious and civil authority are so deeply entwined. Instead of civil union for gays, we ought to be advocating civil union, period, and leave marriage to the religious institutions. If people like your Facebook correspondent want to deny marriage in their churches to gay people, divorcees, or any other class they decide to dislike, they should be free to do so; the state, however, must not. Calling state-sanctioned marriage civil union moots all the "marriage means..." and "marriage has traditionally been..." arguments.

  15. Good idea Melissa -- except that the atheists would not be able to be married and at least some would feel deprived and discriminated against. Words are part of the problem because they are part of how we think of ourselves.

    I'm not an atheist, but I'm really tired of people trying to hide behind their religions to justify their bigotries. Sometimes the government just has to move on and let the churches catch up when they will. Sometimes it's the over way around, depending on the church.