In the US today, 9 states and the District of Colombia have legalized same-sex marriages and 9 states (counting Colorado, where the legislature passed a civil union bill on March 13) have legalized some form of civil union or domestic partnership for same-sex couples. Now one of the civil union states--where same-sex couples have everything that married couples have except for the stigma of not being permitted to call their union a marriage--is on the verge of recognizing the hatefulness of that stigma and enacting a same-sex marriage statute. Illinois's Senate has passed the legislation. Illinois's House executive committee has said it supports it. and Illinois's governor has said he will sign it. See Geoffrey R. Stone, Same-Sex Marriage in Illinois--Now is the Time, Huffington Post (The Blog), Mar. 15, 2013.
As Stone points out, we have come a long way in a few short years, with a majority of Americans now supporting the concept of same-sex marriage.
[W]e have changed as a society. We have come to understand that people around us -- good, kind, decent, loving people -- are themselves gays and lesbians. And with that awareness of individual gays and lesbians, the social view of homosexuals generally has gradually changed.
Further, any state that has created an "in all but the name" civil union equivalent of same-sex marriage has recognized the injustice of not permitting same-sex couples to have the kind of legal, committed relationship that different-sex couples can have. But that difference--in all but name--is not insignificant. As Stone notes:
Imagine if African-Americans could enter into civil unions but not marriages. Imagine if Catholics could legally enter into civil unions but not marriages. Imagine if mixed-race couples could enter into civil unions but not marriages. The insult, the indignity, the discrimination would be apparent to all. The same is true for same-sex couples.
And there really isn't a good argument for refusing to remove this last indignity for same-sex couples. Most of the arguments against gay marriage are along the following lines--we have to uphold traditional (meaning different-sex) marriage; we want to encourage traditional marriage to encourage procreation and cprovide the "right" environment for children; we want to further the traditional "moral values" of society, etc. These arguments don't hold water as far as the well-being of children or the needs of society are concerned or even whether there is a relationship between refusing marriage to same-sex couples and accomplishing those goals. They frequently amount to arguments from the religious views of those who cling to conservative religious perspectives of homosexuality as bad and same-sex marriage as prohibited by God. Stone makes the point the following way.
In a nation committed to the separation of church and state, the government can never deny rights to some in order to appease the religious beliefs of others. During the civil rights struggle, for example, segregationists frequently invoked biblical authority for the separation of the races. The Rev. James E. Burks of Bayview Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia, for example, insisted that God had separated the races and that "when man sets aside the plain teachings" of the Bible and "disregards the boundary lines God Himself has drawn, man assumes a prerogative that belongs to God alone." Similarly, discrimination against women was often justified by reference to "divine ordinance." Such arguments have no place in the American constitutional system.
I understand and respect the strong and sincere feelings of those who think that the marriage of same-sex couples is incompatible with their religious beliefs. But they cannot legitimately or with a proper respect for the American system of law and justice attempt to impose those beliefs on those who disagree. They have every right not to marry a person of the same-sex and they have every right not to officiate at the marriage of a same-sex couple, but they have no right -- no right -- to attempt to prevent the government from recognizing such marriages because they offend their religious beliefs.
In my view, we Americans are too often afraid to address these points of religious bigotry, perhaps from a long association of religious groups with the struggle FOR civil rights and our knowledge that not all religions join in this charade (see link to article below, for example), perhaps from the long connection of religious leadership in communities with the communities' political and social leadership. People don't like to stand out, to fail to conform to the views of those around them, so where these fundamentalist religious views dominate, people may find it hard to go against them. Perhaps it is also because we so often misunderstand our own Constitutional protections--for rights to bear arms, for rights to avoid unreasonable searches, and especially for the free exercise of religion. Religious liberty protections are intended to ensure that no person is denied the right to exercise his/her religious views, so long as those religious views don't cause real harm to others. But the Free Exercise Clause is not meant to protect religious institutions by allowing them to impose narrow dogmas on society in order that their leaders and practitioners avoid the "offense" of others' differing religious views.
]Aside: This is one reason that I think the Supreme Court's ruling in the ministerial exception is wrong, the Tax Code provisions excluding certain income of ministers from taxation is wrong, having a federal "faith-based organizations" office is wrong, as is the concept recently in the news in connection with Obamacare that Catholic institutions shouldn't have to provide the same health care--including abortion and birth control coverage--to all its employees who want it as other entities must do. ]
The Free Exercise Clause protects each American as an individual to provide that person the liberty to exercise his/her faith as s/he sees it (or not). But not to impose his/her views on others.