To the editor: I would like to start off by stating that I am a heterosexual male born in the heart of Schuylkill County. I have always been attracted to the opposite sex for as long as I can remember.

Living and working in China, however, has given me a unique perspective on the issues facing the United States.

The same-sex marriage issue in America is one of those issues I enjoy bringing up in my cultural diversity class at the Suzhou International Foreign Language School here in Suzhou, China. It generates amusing comments and questions from my students, such as "what do the couples wear during the marriage ceremony."

I tell my students that, in my opinion, a ceremony of religious rituals and a piece of paper from the state does not validate a marriage. It's the intimacy and the inability to separate oneself from the other in the spirit of love that validates the marriage. All couples, whether they are heterosexual or homosexual, have the capacity to care for one another. Therefore, their union should have equal protection under the law.

The denial of same-sex marriage is being fueled by Bible-thumping religious conservatives. This issue, however, should ultimately be decided by the state, not by various religious denominations.

I say this because it wasn't that long ago when slavery was justified on religious grounds. Interracial marriage was also denied due to religious conservative viewpoints. The overturning of those unjust laws did not bring an end to our American way of life. Allowing gay marriage in all 50 states will not bring an end to our American way of life, either.

Thomas Jefferson, one of our nation's Founding Fathers, once said, "Education and a virtuous electorate will guide our nation forward." Notice, he did not use the word religion. He, like most of our nation's Founding Fathers, was a deist. The deists during his time believed in God but not in religion. The educated back then believed religion was practicing and living within superstitious beliefs.

The electorate during the time of Jefferson did, however, support the free expression of religion within society separate from government interference. Their intent was to erect a wall of separation between church and state. In 1947, our Supreme Court, the highest court in the land, upheld their intent.

Religion should not be imposed on the American people cloaked as government policy. The state, by denying same-sex couples the right to marry, is in fact imposing religious views on a segment of society and denying them equal protection under the law. As stated before, unjust laws such as these have been overturned in the past. Women now have the right to vote, interracial marriages are allowed in all 50 states and no one today thinks slavery is justified under religious precepts.

Society will always have a segment of people that live within a bigoted, fundamentalist mindset. However, the majority of free thinkers will allow reason and education to move our nation on a virtuous path.

A good education based on reason, logic and the arts, with a virtuous upbringing, is all that is needed for a just society.

Homosexual people can also live virtuous lives as married couples.

Always with love from Suzhou, China,

Thomas F. O'Neill

Shenandoah native