Nowhere in America is the separation between church and state blurrier than at the entrance gates to the institution of marriage. As a social and religious custom, most Americans enter a house of God to share their vows in ceremony.

At the very least, they solicit the help of a presiding clergy who ordains their bond as sacred then signs the crisp, new marriage license. State and federal governments recognize this couple as "legal" and bestow upon them an impressive list of rights, benefits and responsibilities.

This watershed of legal bounty makes little difference to the starry-eyed couples who pose so stylishly for their newspaper announcements. To women showing off new diamonds to friends, the intricacies of Social Security survivor benefits aren't even rocks in their quarry of knowledge.

Money and property flow freely between the married couple without raising eyebrows at the Internal Revenue Service. Health insurance benefits, pension payouts - even something as minute as getting a family membership at a local gym - add up in big and small ways to make being "married" a logistically favorable position to be in, perhaps even an enviable one.

So far, the privileges and responsibilities of this religious-social-legal tradition of marriage haven't been available to anyone who is gay. Even though scientific study continues to enhance our understanding of the biological and genetic underpinnings of homosexuality, there are people in power who turn away from such objective evidence.

A useful analogy is left-handedness. There was a time when ignorance, fear and social pressure made it the norm to "break" a child of this innate characteristic. To be left-handed was seen as being less than, with all the ensuing shame that such a position creates. To anyone in this country, an amendment banning left-handed people from marrying would be seen as the ludicrous proposal that it is.

And yet the comparison to being gay is similar. The vast majority of people who are gay talk of "being born this way." Loving a person of the same sex is what feels natural, just as natural as the child who selects a crayon with her left hand. Most of us who are right-handed know how awkward and strange it feels to try and write with our opposite hand. And yet we accept that what feels odd to us feels perfectly natural to our left-handed friends.

Despite reports from science - and countless personal stories - the religious views of some people see homosexuality as an abomination, a sinful behavioral "choice." Being gay is not the "right" way to be, according to their religious doctrine.

Yet in America, people are free to believe and follow whatever religious path they choose, or they can follow none at all. This is the beauty and profundity of what separation of church and state really means.

Marriage is the social institution that intertwines church and state more tightly than any other. This current debate about gay marriage is bringing this knotty reality of church entangled with state to the forefront. Technically speaking, all couples choosing to live in a committed relationship should seek and be granted "civil unions" in a secular society. Then, those who seek sanction in a house of God should by all means proceed with such a ceremony.

The current debate on marriage - gay and straight - is cascading in a different direction. Countless arguments for and against gay marriage are emerging in light of rulings by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, the actions of the San Francisco mayor's office, and the recently more visible endorsement by President Bush of a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage outright.

Underlying many of the opposing opinions is the assumption that opening up marriage to gay people will somehow weaken the institution of marriage, and society as a whole.

As a community and a nation built upon the principle that "all men are created equal," we are all lifted when the walls that divide us are lowered, this includes the gates to marriage - not the religious ones, but the legal ones.

My partner and I pledged our love and commitment to one another 17 years ago in a private ceremony, witnessed only by the divine Atlantic Ocean and a few seagulls.

Ever since then, we've been paddling our modest little boat through life together. It has no stained glass, this boat, and no jointly filed tax returns. Ours is a bountiful union, nonetheless, acknowledged now by family because that is their choice. We feel well-liked and celebrated by friends - straight and gay - who comment often on the beautiful strength of our relationship.

In all of the most important ways we are already married and have been for a long time. And yet, if publicly sanctioned marriage became available to us, would we participate? Probably. The legal and financial ease and protection would be a welcomed bonus.

The deeper reason we would get married, however, and encourage our more reticent gay friends to do the same, is because stable, long-term loving relationships between two adults fortify our families, our communities and our nation. There are millions of these couples in this country whose community contribution is clipped by this insidious discrimination.

Too many gay people hesitate to get more involved because of real and imagined homophobia in the work place, in schools, in community organizations and in business. In the absence of this openness, fear of gay people is perpetuated by stereotype and myth.

It is time that straight and gay Americans get to know each other. Not in church, necessarily, but at our kids' soccer games and at our jobs, in carpools and in book clubs. We are already your doctors, teachers, priests and neighbors. We are couples, and we are families.

Church walls will not crumble if and when gay couples are given legal rights, nor will the pillars of the Constitution fall. On the contrary, our forefathers built this country on the principle that these two vital institutions - church and state - remain separate for the welfare and well-being of our democracy.

Even though the idea of gay marriage is frightening to many Americans, the importance of protection against discrimination is not. Recognizing gay couples publicly and legally for who we already are will strengthen and enrich American society, not weaken it.

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