July 6, 2006

The Solution to the Gay Marriage Debate (Seriously)

On Thursday, the New York State Court of Appeals and the Georgia State Supreme Court dealt gay marriage advocates a pair of setbacks, rejecting, respectively, a bid by same-sex couples to win marriage rights, and another to overturn a state constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. Gay rights proponents view the fight as far from over however, even while opponents of homosexual marriage have been encouraged by these events.

Although last month’s proposed amendment to the Constitution expressly prohibiting gay marriage was soundly defeated in the U.S. Senate, the issue will surely surface again. With only Massachusetts having declared that homosexuals can marry legally - and 45 other states with outright legal or constitutional bans in place - perhaps it is time to look at framing this issue in another way.

One of the greatest obstacles to resolving the argument over legalized same-sex marriage is the fact that there are actually two questions being debated, but that they are discussed as if there were only one. Specifically, there are dual elements to marriage: the legal standing it confers on those who enter the covenant in the eyes of society; and the religious connotations it confers on the participants in the view of others of the same faith.

The vast majority of homosexuals who want to be married want equality before the law, not equality in someone else’s religion. They aspire to be treated with equanimity by society, not by a church or synagogue or mosque to which they do not belong, and to which they do not wish to. As long as the word “marriage” is used to define both the civil and religious aspects of a union between two consenting adults, confusion and disagreement will reign.

To address this bi-partite issue, a two-pronged solution is needed:
  1. Get government out of the marriage business altogether.
    Government’s only role in the joining of two people should be to regulate the civil aspects of that pairing. It should therefore only be concerned with providing licenses and rights associated with civil unions. That means that all “marriages” (defined as only the legal binding of two adults) become civil unions, whether between a man and a woman, two men or two women.

  2. Separate the religious aspect of marriage from the civil.
    The spiritual layers of matrimony should be unwound entirely from the legal, so that each couple can choose to participate in them or to bypass them altogether. Religious organizations would then have the wholly legal right to choose to whom they grant rights of “marriage” within their faiths, and, as private organizations, could exclude people from those rights as they so choose, based on their beliefs.
This solution affords a level playing field in the eyes of the law for both heterosexual and homosexual couples. Gays and lesbians would be given 100% of the same legal rights of union that heterosexuals enjoy, up to, and including the name: civil union. There would be no government-sanctioned “marriage” for heterosexuals, while only “civil union” for homosexuals. Further, it provides a separate, spiritual element that avoids the pitfall of anyone practicing a faith that prohibits homosexual marriage from having to sanction that union in the context of their religion. No one’s legal rights are abridged because of the particular beliefs of another person or group whose religion they do not share, and “marriage” can be defined however one wants within the context of each faith, as it will only affect those who practice it.

Under such a solution, it’s likely that there would still be people who protest that marriage should only be between one man and one woman based on whatever faith they practice, or that they shouldn’t have to have their right to “marriage” reduced to simply a right to “civil union.” Any such protest however, quickly exposes such individuals to be uninterested in the civil liberties of people not of their faith, and rather focused solely on imposing their own belief system on others. (Some may argue that that is readily apparent today.) Such arguments against this solution demonstate that civil union and marriage are not, in fact, equivalent today, when the former is clearly being used as a second tier solution by those who advocate it.

Clearly this is a reasonable and rational proposal, but it will be interesting to see if there is a reasoned and rational response should it make it into the realm of public discussion. Based on the current positions of opponents to same-sex marriage, it seems unlikely, but maybe this solution can at least sway those presently on the fence.


David Schraub said...

The call to "privatize" marriage has been said before, and I think it has a lot of merit to it. The major problem is a fail to see how it can be made politically viable in today's era of soundbite politics. Basically, how does it translate when turned into a pithy one-liner? Well, something like this:

"Get the government out of marriage"

That, to me, sounds like the type of statement that could be ripped apart in the context of a political debate. It doesn't seem likely to assuage the concerns of committed Christians who think the government has neglected family issues, rather than gotten too involved in them. So I think it's good as a matter of policy, but I don't know how well it will translate politically.

PBI said...


Thanks for your thoughts!

I hadn't gotten as far as implementation, but your point is definitely well taken.

I think perhaps that it could be done as a combination of "get government out of marriage" PLUS "equality in the eyes of the law for all" (or something in the same vein, only pithier), but more importantly, it would have to come from the bottom up, rather than the top down. I agree that it might be attacked in political debate, but also think that if it was a groundswell movement to which people subscribed because they think it a fair and reasonable solution, it could work. If it is something that a candidate introduces as part of a campaign platform out of the blue, you're right - I think it gets shredded.