WASHINGTON D.C.—OK, so what is marriage anyway? Well, it depends on whom you ask. There are two right answers here. If you ask a Catholic priest, he will say that marriage is the sacrament of matrimony, a union between a man and a woman for the purpose of procreation and mutual support, or love. It is a union between a man and a woman before God.

However, if you ask a civil rights attorney, they will tell you that marriage is a legal partnership contract between two people. Marriage is a special class of legal contract that is recognized by and registered with the state. Many different laws, federal, state and local, apply to this special class of contract. Most of these laws deal with the ownership, transmission and disposition of property between the contract participants, including a special class of participant—children.

Note: in the former case, marriage is all about a union before God. In the latter case, God isn’t mentioned. Civil marriage is all about property and the welfare of children.

If you get married in a church, you still have to get a marriage license from the state to be legally married. This is because our laws allow a religion to preach anything they want (for example, that brothers and sisters should marry), just so long as they don’t practice it. The marriage, in a legal sense, has nothing to do with the church you got married in. It is the same partnership whether you were married by a Justice of the Peace or an Archbishop.

Any church can make its own rules about who can and who cannot get married. Many churches have done so. The state is the final arbiter of who can and cannot get married. Even if your church allows polygamy, you can’t legally marry more than one wife at a time. On the other hand, many churches refuse to sanction the marriage of a man to his brother’s widow, which is often perfectly legal. The law never says who the church must marry, only who they cannot marry.

Some people of various religions believe that same-sex marriage is wrong, specifically, that it is a sin. There used to be a lot of laws that were similar in nature. You weren’t allowed to open a store on Sunday, not even a gas station in some places, because to break the Sabbath by engaging in trade was a sin. The laws against same-sex marriage are just laws against what some people call a sin.

However, many people do not think it is a sin. Many people think it is wrong to penalize people because a special interest group considers what they are doing to be a sin. There is a large religious minority in this country that considers eating any form of shellfish a sin. Would it be right to outlaw oysters, mussels and lobster because of their opinion? Some churches still think interracial marriage is a sin. Should we prohibit interracial marriage?

Then there are all those laws and special rules concerning the children of married people. The children of people who are gay and lesbian are no less deserving of these protections and benefits. There’s no reason to expose their children to potential harm. If a church does not recognize a married couple as married, that is their right. More power to them. What matters is that they are not denied the same legal rights, and should be required to fulfill the same responsibilities, as other married couples under civil law.

A very good test for a bigoted prejudice: Does it harm the innocent? “This is an emerging issue for states that have passed these constitutional amendments prohibiting same-sex marriage,” said Robert Doody, executive director of the South Dakota ACLU. “They’re being used to deny people really basic rights.”

People should not be denied equal protection under the law by reason of their race, creed, color, or sexual orientation. This is just as true for marriage as it is for employment, housing, access to health care and social services.