Prelate Pressure: Baltimore Bishop Badgers Gov. On Marriage Equality – Unsuccessfully

Laws should be based on principles of fairness and equality, not religious dogma.

A few miles from where I live is a highway called New Hampshire Avenue. As you drive north on this road, you pass Christian churches of just about every denomination, Jewish synagogues, a Muslim mosque, a Hindu temple and a Buddhist center. This stretch of road has been dubbed “the highway to Heaven.”

It’s a truly remarkable testament to the diversity of my adopted home state of Maryland. I couldn’t help but think about that diversity recently after reading an account about a new flap over same-sex marriage in the state.

Maryland is moving toward marriage equality. The legislature almost approved same-sex marriage during its last session, falling just a few votes short. Some political observers in the state believe the bill will make it through during the next session.

That has Baltimore Archbishop Edwin F. O’Brien in a tizzy. O’Brien is especially angry because Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley is a Catholic who attends mass regularly and sends his four children to Catholic schools. In O’Brien’s view, O’Malley has turned his back on his faith.

The two have exchanged letters about the issue. The Washington Post obtained the letters and has published an article about them. The exchange is an interesting look at how religion and politics continue to intertwine in a country founded on the separation of church and state.

O’Brien asserts that supporting marriage equality would “deeply conflict” with O’Malley’s Catholic faith. He also hints at political retaliation.

“Maryland is not New York,” O’Brien wrote. “We urge you not to allow your role as the leader of our state to be used in allowing the debate surrounding the definition of marriage to be determined by mere political expediency. The people of Maryland deserve no less.”

In response, O’Malley noted some areas where he is in agreement with the church, such as opposing the death penalty, but added, “[W]hen shortcomings in our laws bring about a result that is unjust, I have a public obligation to try to change that injustice.”

Maryland has a strong Catholic tradition. In fact, the colony was founded in the 17th century by Sir George Calvert and his son Cecilus, who were converts to Catholicism. It became something of a refuge for members of that faith, who were often persecuted in other colonies.

But a lot has changed since 1634. Maryland today is diverse. The Baltimore region and the Washington, D.C., suburbs draw a vibrant mix of individuals, and even rural parts of the state are getting more diverse. In my area, one hears a polyglot of languages, and we enjoy a range of cultures. As I’ve noted, the religious diversity is amazing. Gov. O’Malley must represent all of these people. And the only way he can do that is by basing his decisions on principles of fairness and equality, not religious dogma.

I understand that the bishop opposes same-sex marriage. That is his right. But he has no right to expect the government to write his theological views into law. The Catholic hierarchy sets the rules for marriages in the church, but it doesn’t get to set the rules for civil marriages for everybody.

If the bishop had a persuasive argument against civil marriage equality based on secular rationales, he might have a point. But O’Brien hasn’t even tried to conjure up one. All he has done is complain that marriage equality violates his church’s teachings. It’s not good enough.

After all, the bishop’s church also opposes the use of artificial forms of birth control and divorce. Should Maryland ban those too?

I’m glad my governor understands that his personal religious beliefs should not be imposed by law on the 5.7 million people who live in his state. Some other governors could learn from him -- including a certain fellow out in Texas who believes it’s his job to sponsor “fundamentalist Christians only” prayer rallies.