Friday, May 23, 2008

End ‘marriage’?

The recent California Supreme Court ruling in favour of marriage equality in that state has again stirred up opponents who cling to the weird notion that it will somehow destroy marriage. Despite lacking any intellectual justification for their position, it’s one they cling to fiercely.

An often-suggested alternative is to allow same-sex couples to enter into marriage-like relationships. Some are equivalent to marriage, like New Zealand’s Civil Unions, but others are dramatically inferior, and none have equality with marriage when it comes to US federal law, including taxes (in fact, even same sex marriages from Massachusetts and, soon, California don’t exist for federal purposes).

I’m not a big fan of “separate but equal” as a matter of principle, but if calling our legal relationships something else makes nervous heterosexuals willing to give us the rights, privileges and responsibilities of marriage, then I’ve said I can live with “separate but equal” provided that it’s truly equal to marriage in every way.

But what if we ended “marriage” as a state function altogether? What if the only legal recognition went to civil unions, open to gay and straight couples alike? Marriage itself could be left to churches to argue about, getting government out of the business of managing a religious function.

Eric Zorn, a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, just suggested exactly that. Zorn points out, correctly, that at its core, marriage is a contract between two people. It has nothing to do with religion, which is primarily concerned with other matters. He wrote:

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.

I’ve been saying the same thing for years.

What about the huge disagreement among religions? Some would marry gay couples, others wouldn’t. Who would “really” be married? In answer to such a question, Zorn said “who decrees who is baptized and who isn't? Who is confirmed and who isn't? Who is ordained and who isn't? Who is a true convert and who isn't?” All very good points, and none of the things that Zorn lists are concerns of government. Why should marriage be, either?

I don’t expect to see any move in this direction in most places, and I don’t think most heterosexuals will see this a compromise, as Zorn suggests it is. However, I do think this is a way forward, one that focuses on what gay people want—legal equality and the dignity that is their right as citizens—and what some heterosexuals want—keeping marriage for themselves.

But in any case, getting government out of the business of managing what is essentially a religious sacrament has got to be a good thing for both government and religion. Or is this just too practical a solution for either side to adopt?


d said...

Great idea! Let's do it!

I do like that the Civil Unions here in NZ are available to all couples - hetero or homo.

Arthur Schenck said...

I've long thought the idea had merit. I mean, why are religious institutions performing a government function as well as their own? Best separate them.

The NZ Civil Unions were brought in as an alternative to simply amending the Marriage Act, which the Government didn't think was politically possible at the time (and it probably wasn't). They are are the same as marriage in most respects, but not all; the ones where there are differences are mainly due to other laws that don't automatically see Civil Unions as the same as marriage, like adoption, for example.

Changing NZ's Marriage Act to make marriage, for government purposes, a civil union open to same-sex and opposite-sex couples alike would solve that once and for all, while still letting churches do whatever they feel they must.