© Josh Sager – January 2014
Since the turn of the century, state and federal lawmakers in the United States have been engaged in a series of fights over the nature of marriage and the legality of same-sex marriage. These fights have been extremely hard-fought, as gay people are fighting for their rights and anti-marriage equality activists are fighting for what they perceive to be the morality of their country.
Currently, 17 States have codified marriage equality, while 33 have laws that ban gay marriage. While this ratio may appear bad for supporters of marriage equality, the fact is that the general trend of marriage fights is almost entirely in their favor—anti-equality laws have been falling in court and new states are allowing gay marriage every year.
Despite their recent losses in the Supreme Court (the downfall of DOMA and Prop 8), it appears as though those who oppose marriage equality are dedicated to going down fighting and stretching out the process by years.
Put simply, the only moral and constitutional end to the debate over marriage equality is for gay couples to have the exact same legal status and benefits as straight couples. The equal protections clause of the constitution demands that every citizen be accorded equal rights, and that includes marriage rights (as decided under Loving v. Virginia, during the fight over interracial marriage).
While the policy victory must belong to the proponents of marriage equality, I think that there is a way of softening the blow to more reasonable opponents of equality (thus making it easier to push equality quickly through the states).
I propose severing the religious/social terminology associated with “marriage” from the secular benefits that the state grants legally unified couples. Under this proposal, the government would only legally recognize the contract of civil union—which it would avail to any two, nonrelated people over the age of consent—and would let the individual call the bond what they will.
All current secular marriages and civil unions would be standardized to the rights, protections, and benefits available to married couples but the language of the bond would be shifted entirely to the civil union terminology. The term “marriage” would be eliminated from the law and relegated to a purely social and religious terminology.
While the government would only use the term civil union in regard to benefits and contracts, individuals and private institutions would be allowed to determine who they consider to be “married” in regard to private religious rituals. Religious institutions would be under no requirement to call a couple “married” under their religious dogma but they would be required to honor the civil bond of a civil union under certain circumstances (ex. catholic hospitals and charities would have to recognize a civil union between two men, even if they don’t consider them “married”).
This solution may sound a little odd at first, but it isn’t actually that controversial. It is common for couples to have religious ceremonies of marriage after technically being married by the state (if they sign the marriage documents before the ceremony)—functionally, these couples are civilly “married” before they are married within their religious faith.
I think that this semantic compromise could be beneficial to all sides of the marriage equality fight. Gay couples would attain equal legal status with straight couples (everybody would legally be in a civil union), while religious institutions wouldn’t be forced to recognize the marriages of same-sex couples of such recognition was an affront to their religious dogma.
While I have no doubt that many zealots would decry this solution to marriage equality as the destruction of marriage in society, these people are likely too far gone to see reason; they are intellectually immobilized by their religion and will fight anything that gives gays equal protections under the law.
This reform is aimed at diffusing the tensions of the marginal individuals who are reticent to legalize “gay marriage” because they are insecure or have bought into the arguments that marriage equality would destroy their marriages. By shifting the language of the debate to eliminate the baggage attached to the word “marriage” these peoples’ fears could be allayed while achieving the fair policy result.