As some of you may know, in celebration of the one year anniversary of Philosophy Sucks! I have been reposting some posts that I liked but that never got the attention they deserved. Well, this post was originally posted July 13th 2007, so it is not quite this day, but it is close and there seems to have been some confusion around here lately as to where this post was. So here it is.
If one looks at the history of marriage one sees two distinct traditions. On the one hand we have a pre-Christian secular contract based tradition that is concerned most with legalities and on the other we have the religious spiritual union based tradition. Now in the debate about same-sex marriage that is currently taking place in our society we see some who are pushing for these two traditions to be separated. So, surprisingly, the majority of Americans seem to feel that same-sex marriage should be banned (a sad fact: Every ballot that same-sex marriage has appeared on results in a defeat at the polls). Yet, at the same time most seems also to feel that same-sex ‘civil unions’ are permissible. A civil union is a state recognized union that grants legal rights comparable to those obtained by marriage. It seems from this that the opposition is religiously generated, presumably by what the Old Testament says about homosexual relationships (never mind that these same people ignore all of the other stuff the Old Testament says, e.g. like stoning to death women on their period who don’t leave town). These people argue that marriage is a religious sacrament and so should be controlled by the Church.
Now of course people like me, who think that all persons should have equal rights regardless of race, intellegence, religion, sexual-orientation, height, eye color, political party, socio-economic class, or shoe size tend to think that the suggestion that straight people get to be married and homosexual people have to have civil unions denies a basic human right to people who happen to be homosexuals.
But there is another inequality in the proposed split between marriage and civil unions. That is that I, as a heterosexual, can only get married: Me and my girlfriend cannot get a civil union. I am not a religious person (I am agnostic) nor is my girlfriend. If I were to get married it would not be by a priest, nor would it take place at a church. In short mine would be a completely secular affair. Nor do I think that what I just described is so out of the ordinary.
So I say we should formally distinguish these two aspects. Let marriage be a religious institution and let civil unions be a secular institution. Let the church govern marriage and define it as between one man and one woman. And let the state govern civil unions and define it as they want; a loving commitment to partnership and family betweem two persons. That way religious people would get marriages and secular people would get civil unions.
Now I suspect that there will be those who are unsatisfied with this answer. They might insist that same-sex marriages should be allowed, that the Church ought to be forced to recognize same-sex marriage as legitimate. While I sympathize with this sentiment I think that it must be recognized that, for better or for worse, marriage has become partly a religious ceremony. It is in fact a sacrament of faith. So in so far as it is a religious instituion, and in so far as the Church has the right to run its instituions, the Church has a right to define marriage as it wants. Though there is an interesting question here. Could the Church define marriage as only between two people of the same race? Or of the same faith? If they could not then it seems arbitrary that they do get to stipulate ‘same sex’ and it does seems as though they couldn’t do the former. So maybe the Church can’t define marriage in any way that it wants.
Maybe if we press the above kinds of arguments and reason prevails then we will eventually see people with perfect equality in this respect and then every couple, regardless of orientation, will have the choice between the religious instituion of marriage and the secular instituion of civil union. But until then (don’t hold your breath!) by clearly seperating the two instituions and making civil unions available to all secular persons we can better focus on what the real issue is (i.e. one of the Church’s right to govern its instituions) and at the same time by raising the status of civil unions we address the worry that civil unions discriminate against homsosexuals; that it is somehow ‘marriage-lite’. It is not as though civil unions are ‘less than a marriage’ it is just that they are a secular rather than religious instituion. The fight with religion to recognize gay persons as deserving equality is another fight.