As President Barack Obama on Wednesday rejected the federal Defense of Marriage Act, labeling as unconstitutional a provision in the law that defines marriage as a relationship between only a man and woman, the topic of same-sex marriage was discussed by a panel of religious leaders at Fairfield University.
"Does God Approve of Same-Sex Marriage?" an interfaith discussion, was scheduled weeks in advance of the Wednesday development and no one could have predicted that the Obama administration would hand gay-rights activists that victory on the same day.
Local religious leaders representing Catholicism, Judaism, Islam and Protestantism gathered at the Barone Campus Center to explore the issue. The panelists talked about how different faith traditions have viewed gay and lesbian marriages in the past and how these views are changing.
"It's very hard to discern what God thinks about same-sex marriage," said David P. Schmidt, associate professor of business ethics, and director of the Program in Applied Ethics at Fairfield University. Schmidt said it's even harder to discern the Protestant view on the subject because "it's all over the map."
Schmidt asked, "What does God think about marriage between tall and short people or black and white people? I'd like to think the real question is, `What's the quality of the relationship?' " he said.
The Defense of Marriage Act took effect in September 1996 and defines marriage as a relationship between one man and one woman. But even some of the religious leaders on the panel suggested that definition is not found in their books of scripture. Some panelists said biblical passages are subject to interpretation, and some believe there are passages that speak against sexual violence and humiliation that were misconstrued as being against-sex acts.
Heba Youssef, Muslim chaplain at the university, said the Koran contains a gender-neutral word related to the pairing of couples. She said there are those in the Muslim community who are not even willing to discuss homosexuality, let alone same-sex marriage but she said she sees that the narrative is going to shift in a fruitful direction.
"We're slowly getting there. We're beginning to dialogue," Youssef, said.
Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz, assistant rabbi at Congregation B'nai Israel in Bridgeport, said there are as many perspectives on same-sex marriage within Judaism as there are within society. "Because the ancient biblical world did not know marriage as we understand marriage today we are essentially dealing with something that is far from clear-cut and open to interpretation," Gurevitz said.
"We've got to be careful how we read those ancient texts. They come from a world very different from ours," said Paul F. Lakeland, who holds the Aloysius P. Kelley chair in Catholic studies and is a professor of religious studies at Fairfield. He is the director of the university's Center for Catholic Studies.
Lakeland said the Defense of Marriage Act was adopted because of those who believe that same-sex marriage is a threat to the institution of marriage. He said gay and lesbian Catholics are offended that they are viewed as a social threat when they only want to engage in the same long-term relationship that heterosexuals are allowed. He said about 58 percent of Catholics support same-sex unions.
"On what grounds do we have the right to deny others simply because their needs are not our own?" asked Ellen Umansky, a professor of Judaic studies at the university and director of the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies on campus. Umansky pointed to a scriptural text that suggests man should not live alone, that social and sexual companionship is important to quality of life.
Lakeland said one of the greatest gifts of the Catholic Church is celibacy for its priests and yet "Gay and lesbian people are being summoned to celibacy as a sanction, not as a gift."
"At the end of the day it's between you and God," Youssef said.
About 120 people attended the forum, sponsored by the Center for Catholic Studies, the Carl and Dorothy Bennett Center for Judaic Studies and the Office of the University Chaplain.
Among those in the audience was Matt Faber, of Fairfield, who graduated from the university in 1990. "It was a great way for the university to demonstrate its openness in engaging in very important conversations and dialogues. It does not take one stance or another. It engages in intellectual, humanistic conversation," said Faber, a founding member of the university's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender student organization for undergraduates and coordinator of the LGBT alumni group.
"On this campus it's important to have an open mind because we're so diverse and there are so many different opinions," said Rachel Lang, 19, of Milford, a freshman studying international studies and politics.