Posted by MeganFinnegan at 12/5/2009 8:17 PM EST

A few days ago the New York State Senate finally voted on a marriage equality bill – and killed it. Any immediate hope for making gay marriage legal in the state was dashed by the 38 to 24 vote against the bill, which the State Assembly passed 89 to 52 back in May.

In response to the vote, the New York State Catholic Conference released the following statement, which can be found on their website:

“While the Catholic Church rejects unjust discrimination against homosexual men and women, there is no question that marriage by its nature is the union of one man and one woman. Advocates for same-sex 'marriage' have attempted to portray their cause as inevitable. However, it has become clear that Americans continue to understand marriage the way it has always been understood, and New York is not different in that regard. This is a victory for the basic building block of our society."

The Vatican spoke up about another issue involving government and culture, or at least publicly backed the conference of Swiss bishops in condemning Switzerland’s ban on the construction of minarets, the tower-like structures built on some Islamic mosques. This is an excerpt from an article on The Catholic Herald’s website (read the full article here):

“‘The decision of the people represents an obstacle and a great challenge on the path of integration in dialogue and mutual respect,’ the bishops said. Banning the building of minarets ‘increases the problems of coexistence between religions and cultures,’ they said.”

Substitute “banning of minarets” with “banning of gay marriage.” Let’s read it that way, just for fun.

“‘The decision of the people represents an obstacle and a great challenge on the path of integration in dialogue and mutual respect,’ the bishops said. Banning gay marriage ‘increases the problems of coexistence between religions and cultures,’ they said.”

Hm. Here we have the Catholic Church telling the Swiss government to stay neutral (not a lot to ask, Switzerland) and tolerant of other cultures. In America, however, the Church inserts itself into what is arguably a cultural issue and what is definitely a civil issue when it takes an active stance on gay marriage.

Let’s be clear about what the gay marriage movement wants. It does not want to be validated by the Catholic Church; it wants to be validated by the U.S. government. No one is asking the Church to redefine its concept of marriage. That would be like asking Muslims to redesign their concept of an appropriate place of worship. Both things would be wrong for any government to do.

But unlike our Swiss brethren, the United States is not seeking to place strictures on any religion. Laws allowing gay marriage do not alter the Church’s separate requirements for marriage. While (in almost all cases) a priest will not marry a couple without a state-issued marriage license, it is not a two-way street. The marriage of a Catholic person outside the Church and without proper dispensation is not recognized by the Church. The Church, as a religious body, does not have to recognize a marriage just because the United States government does. It can reject the second marriage of the divorcee who never received an annulment from her first, or that of a Catholic who marries a Baptist in an outdoor ceremony with a minister but without the proper permissions, or that of two men or two women.

Any person, Catholic or not, can at least understand why the Church will never abandon the public policy debate on abortion, because the Church sees abortion unequivocally as murder and will never condone it. One does not need to look far in the Bible (well, the New Testament, for sure) to find that killing is wrong in God’s eyes. One of the 10 Commandments, after all. The “evidence” that God hates the gays is much less clear. But more importantly, gay marriage does not harm anyone. It does not end life, or pregnancy, or anything. A marriage, any marriage, marks the beginning of something, the creation of family, the birth of new, shared life.

Regardless, the Church is not going to change its stance on gay marriage – at least not in my lifetime, though one can hope. What it could change, however, is its involvement in the American legal system’s definition and structure of a civil institution. The Church doesn’t rally the government to stop granting business licenses to companies it might deem unethical or immoral, and Lord knows (literally) there are plenty that would meet such criteria. When the Church behaves like a petulant child and does things like threaten to pull funding from Washington, D.C. area social programs if gay marriage is legalized, it is not promoting an end to “unjust discrimination” or tolerance or dialogue or respect. Apparently those ideas are only good enough for Switzerland.

The Church made the right call in condemning Switzerland’s bizarre and unacceptable move against Islam. The bishops have asked the government to stay out of religious issues. Is it so different to ask the bishops to stay out of government issues? You can call marriage a building block, a civil union, a sacred institution, a sham, a legal agreement, a matter of convenience, a religious sacrament, a way to relegate women and receive inheritance – it depends on who you ask and what century we’re in. But in the United States, according to the government, marriage is a contract, plain and simple, and it can be broken. That alone sets it apart from the Church, which views marriage as either forever, or annulled (which means that it never actually happened in the first place). The Church may discriminate. The U.S. government may not.

Let’s put it in terms that Catholics can relate to, the classic question that we are always supposed to be asking: what would Jesus do? I don’t think He’d be spending any time on Capitol Hill, that’s for sure. He’d be in the soup kitchens and homeless shelters – the places that the Church says it will pull out of if the legislature doesn’t do as it says. He would want to know why the Church is wasting its time and resources on a fight to disallow people basic rights from the government. After “Love God,” Jesus conveniently rolled all the other rules and commandments into one easy-to-follow guideline: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s pretty hard to argue with that one.