Let churches define what 'marriage' is
May 22, 2008
How about this for a compromise?
How about instead of granting government recognition to gay marriages, we deny government recognition to straight marriages?
How about, in other words, we get government out of the sacrament business altogether?
Let the various churches, denominations and other belief groups decide who gets to perform the marriage ritual with whom, and leave the blessing and the consecrating to religious institutions.
And let the government handle the contract end of things. That's government's job—outlining the binding nitty-gritty of mutual obligations and privileges in legally sanctioned relationships.
One reason the debate over gay marriage gets so heated is that many Americans believe, as President George W. Bush has said, that "marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman."
But in that assertion lies the problem.
The way I read my Constitution, defining the terms of "sacred institutions" isn't the job of the government. Under our system, government isn't deputized to decide what is and isn't sacred or to make rules for the rites, rituals and other observances of faith.
Who is or isn't, can or can't be baptized, Christened, confirmed, bar mitzvahed, ordained, entitled to extreme unction and so on is no more the state's business than who is and isn't "married."
Contributing columnist Dennis Byrne, an opponent of gay marriage, wrote the other day that "this fight is about a word."
And, indeed, most polls show that majority opinion has come to favor marriage-like civil unions between same-sex couples, but still opposes such unions if we call them "marriages."
I get that. I don't agree with it, but I get it: "Marriage" is a profound word with roots that go very deep in religious traditions. Many faiths have elaborate customs that go along with marriages—when they are appropriate, how they are performed, how they are dissolved and so on.
Redefining the concept of marriage feels to many like an assault on those customs.
Proponents of gay marriage can argue that this isn't so—that allowing same-sex couples to marry doesn't harm or cheapen the marriage of opposite-sex couples; that marriage is a positive and stabilizing force in gay society, just as it is in straight society; that the Golden Rule itself demands we grant dignity, respect and full recognition to gay couples. And they will inevitably prevail.
The goal is to have the law—and society—redefine these marriage-like civil unions between same-sex partners as "marriages," plain and simple. But it might be easier to have the law—and society—redefine marriages between opposite-sex partners as "civil unions," plain and simple, and put an end to this fight about a word.
Years ago, in places where religion and government were indistinguishable, we affixed a religious term to what is for most practical purposes a civil contract. This seems like the cleanest and fastest way to separate the ideas while continuing to honor both.
If a faith group wants "marriage" to be the Bushian "sacred institution between a man and a woman" and nothing more, that will always be their right.
But if any couple, gay or straight, wants to avail themselves of the literally hundreds of entanglements and perks of matrimony, they'll have to do so by entering into a contract.
The law, having graciously returned the word "marriage" to the real of faith whence it came, will register their relationship as civil union.
What they call it will be up to them and their community, of course.
It's a free country, after all. Or it will be.
How about that?