After an especially evangelical public committee meeting Monday night, the New Haven Board of Alderman indicated it will make the same disappointing decision it did 10 years ago when members voted down an ordinance supporting the recognition of same-sex unions. The 10 ballots cast against the proposal are lamentable, but the explanation one member of the board gave for voting “no” is cause for particular alarm.
Announcing her rationale for opposing the ordinance, Ward 12 Alderwoman Shirley Ellis-West, who had originally expressed support, suggested she changed her mind and her vote because of personal religious beliefs and not constituents’ political ones. “I can’t ignore the people who elected us into office,” she said, “but y’all ain’t gotta answer to my God, so I’m not going to support this.” In fact Ellis-West is exactly right: We do not have answer to her God. She should not vote as if we do.
Gay marriage is a political issue suffused with religiosity, and individuals, perfectly reasonably, approach it with their own ideas of what constitutes moral behavior. We may find the comments of some of Monday’s most vocal religious leaders objectionable, but the city’s reverends and rabbis have every right to declare their opposition to same-sex civil unions as loudly, colorfully and with as many quotes from the Bible as they like. But as an elected official, each alderman at the meeting had an obligation to separate religious from secular when considering the issue and deciding how to vote. When the board takes its official vote on the ordinance on April 21, we hope Ellis-West takes more care to do so.
While her comment stands out as irresponsible, the tenor of the meeting leads us to question whether the board as a whole has given adequate attention to the secular side of this issue. A clear majority of the members of the public who spoke Monday night opposed the ordinance on religious grounds. The aldermen, meanwhile, sat quietly for most of the public speeches and voted without discussion shortly after the last speaker finished. Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93, who proposed in 1993 a nearly identical piece of legislation that inspired similar religious rancor, left City Hall bemoaning the absence of a line between church and state.
Though this week’s meeting yielded only a lengthy series of speeches, a few disturbing comments and an unofficial vote, it should serve as a cautionary example at a time when religious rhetoric is abundant in politics. It is fine for politicians to have their own religious beliefs, just as it is fine for Ellis-West to privately believe homosexual unions are immoral. Considering the events of the past two years, it is not unreasonable for people to think about God when they think about politics. But what makes Ellis-West’s declaration so disturbing — and the risk any elected official runs by invoking religion when deciding policy — is that when she votes, the two are indistinguishable.