Gay marriage is obviously a divisive issue. Witness the thousands of folks who turned out at the Augusta Civic Center to speak for and against the marriage equity bill currently before the state Legislature.

Gay marriage is not, however, a religious issue. It’s a civil rights issue. The sooner some churches understand this, the better off we all will be.

Last week the Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted 11-2 to send the gay marriage bill to the Senate. One member supported sending the matter straight to public referendum, correctly reasoning that when the Legislature passes LD 1020, which the Senate did 21-14 and the House will certainly do, opponents of gay marriage will mount a people’s veto referendum anyway. If it comes to that, I’m sure the good people of Maine will sustain the right of same-sex couples to marry.

Opponents of gay marriage, led primarily by the Roman Catholic Church and fundamentalist Protestant churches, get all holier-than-thou about homosexual love, but whenever I hear their pious preachings I am convinced that they are simply unable to make a distinction between two people in a loving, committed relationship and pedophiles.

Given the sorry history of sexual abuse by priests, I confess I have a hard time taking seriously anyone representing the Catholic diocese making moral pronouncements about homosexuality. If ever there were living proof that denying one’s sexuality tends to produce aberrant behavior, it is the priesthood. Homosexuality is natural. Celibacy is not.

The sanctimonious argument that permitting gay and lesbian couples to marry would somehow diminish the institution of marriage is completely bogus. No one has ever advanced a single convincing reason why my heterosexual marriage will suffer if gay marriage becomes law. That’s because it won’t. In fact, I believe that all traditional marriages are diminished as long as our gay brothers and sisters are prohibited from enjoying the legal and spiritual benefits of marriage.

My church has sanctioned the covenanting of same-gender unions since 1999. No one is suggesting, however, that churches that oppose gay marriage must perform them. So, as far as I’m concerned, gay marriage simply is none of their business. They are irrelevant, unless, of course, they are interested in social justice. Legal prohibitions against gay marriage are the exact same thing as prohibitions against interracial marriages. Wrong.

Gay marriage shouldn’t be a partisan political issue either, yet the Senate vote was largely along party lines. Democrats (with one exception) supported civil rights, Republicans (with two exceptions) opposed. If the GOP continues its drift into extreme conservatism it risks becoming marginalized as the party of the narrow-minded.

The moralistic argument against gay marriage that I find most abhorrent is the empty-headed, empty-hearted admonition to “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” I guess that’s how “good” people rationalize their prejudice. But every “good” person, every minister, every minister who condemns homosexuality as a sin contributes to the culture of hate, fear and exclusion that breeds discrimination and violence against innocent citizens.

Homosexuality is not a sin. Homophobia is.

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beem-edgar-op.jpgThe Universal Notebook is Edgar Allen Beem’s weekly personal look at the world around him. “Backyard Maine,” a collection of his columns, is available now at local bookstores.