Gay Couples & Civil Rights

January 7, 2009

A student reading offers conflicting views on gay marriage, which became an inauguration issue when Barack Obama selected Rev. Rick Warren to deliver the invocation. A second reading discusses some major practical differences between civil union and marriage.

Gay civil rights in general and gay marriage in particular continue to be controversial for Americans. The first student reading below offers some conflicting views on the gay marriage issue, which became a presidential inauguration issue when Barack Obama selected the Reverend Rick Warren to deliver the invocation. The second reading discusses some major practical differences between civil union and marriage. Discussion questions follow, along with a proposed fish bowl discussion among students on gay marriage. Given its controversiality, teachers might be interested in examining "Teaching on Controversial Issues" in the high school section of the Teachable Moment Lessons section.

Students might profit from seeing the movie Milk, with Sean Penn playing Harvey Milk, the gay rights activist who emphasized that every gay person needed to come out of the closet to be seen as a human being with a claim to the same rights as other human beings.

Student Reading 1:

Gay marriage?

When president-elect Barack Obama announced that the Reverend Rick Warren would deliver the invocation at his inauguration, he created an instant controversy. Rev. Warren says, "I love gays," but he is outspoken in his opposition to gay marriage. Other Christian ministers and priests, as well as Obama, have expressed opposition to gay marriage but not in the way Rev. Warren has.

Recently Warren declared, "I've been accused of equating gay partnership with incest and pedophilia...but I believe no such thing [and] you never once heard me talk that way."

But on her MSNBC program, Rachel Maddow played a video clip in which Rev. Warren does talk that way: "I'm opposed to having a brother and sister be together and call that marriage. I'm opposed to an older guy marrying a child and calling that a marriage." Asked if he thinks such marriages are equivalent to gay marriages, he responded, "Oh, I do."

Appearing on CNN's "Late Edition," Representative Barney Frank, who is openly gay and a Democratic supporter of Obama, opposed Obama's choice of Rev. Warren. "Giving that kind of mark of approval and honor to someone who has frankly spoken in ways I and many others have found personally very offensive, I thought that was a mistake for the president-elect to do."

On Election Day Californians approved Proposition 8, which banned gay marriages. Only Massachusetts and Connecticut have expressly authorized them. "People believe in the institution of marriage," Frank Schubert, co-manager of California's Yes on 8 campaign, said.... "It's one institution that crosses ethnic divides, that crosses partisan divides....People have stood up because they care about marriage and they care a great deal."

"We pick ourselves up and trudge on," said Kate Kendell, executive director of the National Center for Lesbian Rights. "There has been enormous movement in favor of full equality in eight short years. That is the direction this is heading, and if it's not today or it's not tomorrow, it will be soon." (, 11/4/08)

Barack Obama said, "It is no secret that I am a fierce advocate for equality for gay and lesbian Americans." In August, during the election campaign, Obama was invited to speak at Rev. Warren's Saddleback Church in Orange County, California. Asked to define marriage, he told the reverend, "It's a union between a man and a woman. For me as a Christian, it's a sacred union. God's in the mix." But he added that he supports same-sex civil unions and would "offer those civil rights to others even if I don't have...that view."

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. Why is there controversy over Barack Obama's selection of Reverend Warren to deliver the invocation at Obama's inauguration? Do you think Obama made a mistake? If so, why? If not, why not?


Student Reading 2:

Civil unions and gay marriages

According to the U.S. Government Accountability Office, there are 1,049 benefits and protections available to heterosexual married couples. They include Social Security benefits for a surviving spouse after a partner dies; sick leave when a partner is ill; tax and insurance breaks, veterans' benefits, and making medical decisions if a partner cannot.

Most states expressly prohibit gay marriage. A few-Vermont, New Jersey, New Hampshire—permit civil unions. While many gay people welcome the opportunity for a civil union, they also claim marriage as a civil right. What is the difference?

Couples in a civil union cannot get many of the 1,049 benefits. For instance, they can't file a joint federal tax return, transfer assets and wealth without being assessed tax penalties, or automatically become an American if he or she is a foreigner and enters into a civil union.

"Marriage" is a term that also "conveys societal and cultural meaning, important to both gay rights activists and those who don't believe gays should marry," writes Kathy Beige (

Opponents of gay marriage often refer to Biblical passages to support their position. Dr. Albert Mohler cites such passages as the following in an article reprinted on the website of Focus on the Family, a Christian organization (

"Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." (Genesis 2:24)

"Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female. And [Jesus] said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh. Wherefore they are no more twain, but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder." (Matthew, 19:4-6)

"...let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband." (Paul in Corinthians, 7:2)

Those who reject the use of Biblical passages to oppose gay marriage sometimes cite scripture that supports slavery, pointing out that most Christians and Jews do not subscribe to every view put forward in the Bible:

"Both thy bondmen and thy bondmaids, which thou halt have, shall be of the heathen round about you; of them shall ye buy bondmen and bondmaids...but over your brethren the children of Israel, ye shall not rule one over another with rigor." (Leviticus, 25:44, 46)

Most gays and lesbians regard marriage as a civil right that should be available to every American, as the "Million for Marriage" petition statement states:

"I do support the right of every American to marry, including gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender couples. I believe that marriage and other civil rights protections are essential making all families safer and more secure.

"By signing this petition, I agree to support efforts to make marriage equality a reality in our country and to oppose any attempts to discriminate against GLBT (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) couples and individuals." (Source is no longer active.)

For discussion

1. What questions do students have about the reading? How might they be answered?

2. For a gay person, what are the practical differences between being joined by a partner in a civil union rather than in a marriage?

3. Why do some people oppose gay marriage?

4. What "societal and cultural meanings" does marriage convey to you? Do any of these meanings prohibit gay marriage? Why or why not?

5. Is it fair to cite the Bible's support for heterosexual marriage but to ignore its support for slavery? Why or why not?

Fish Bowl

Should gay people be granted the civil right to marriage? Why or why not? A good way for the class to explore such controversial questions is a Fish Bowl. If you are unfamiliar with "Fish Bowl," see "Engaging Your Class Through Groupwork" for a description of it.

This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: