Recently a federal court struck down as unconstitutional California’s Proposition 8 that made gay marriage illegal in that state. It seems this debate over marriage is never going to end until everyone is satisfied which isn’t likely to happen. Both gays (and their advocates) and conservatives have dug in their heels and there doesn’t seem much room for compromise.
I suggest this compromise for consideration although I’m not committed to it. I would just like to see voices on both sides discuss it.
First, reserve marriage to the churches and other religious organizations. (Here I’ll use “churches” as a cipher for all religious organizations both Christian and non-Christian.) Historically, marriage has been a religious institution. Government issued marriage licenses were only invented in the 19th century (so I’ve been told by historians who have studied the matter) to prevent certain people from marrying: close relatives, people of different races, people who have certain diseases, etc.
Let the government issue civil union licenses to any two people who desire such a relationship which gives them certain privileges in the eyes of the law (e.g., joint property).
In this arrangement, then, if a couple wants to be married in the eyes of God they go to a church. Each church (congregation or denomination depending on the polity) decides whom they will marry. If a couple wants to have a civil union they go to the government. Couples can do one or both.
In this arrangement (which is already that of several countries) a couple might be married but not have a civil union. For example, under current law some young and elderly couples cannot marry (in the eyes of the government) for financial reasons. But they are in love and want to be intimate and have religious qualms about sexual intimacy without being married. In this hypothetical arrangement they could be married by any church that will marry them while avoiding the penalties of a state issued civil union (e.g., losing health insurance coverage which they have under their parents’ health insurance until age 25 or losing some of their social security income if they are elderly).
On the other hand, if a gay couple wants to be “married” they can have a civil union from the state even if no church in their town will marry them. And, they can always go somewhere to find a church that will marry them. But just because their local churches won’t marry them doesn’t at all hinder their having a civil union with its legal benefits which is what they’re mainly after anyway.
Now if a gay couple objects to that and says “No, you don’t understand, we also want to be married in the eyes of God,” under this arrangement one church can say “You can never be married in the eyes of God” while another can say “We’ll marry you so that you are inseparably joined in God’s sight.” Then, no one is discriminating against them in such a way as to hinder their full legal benefits and no one can condemn a church for refusing to marry them because they can find a church that will.
After all, ordination to the gospel ministry or priesthood is done only by churches; the government (in the U.S. at least) has nothing to do with it. Why should the government have anything to do with marriage in its traditional sense as a religious institution?
In this proposed arrangment each church would decide who they recognize as really married. (Just as they do who is really ordained or really baptized.) A church would not have to recognize as married every couple that has a civil union. And the government would not recognize a church’s marriage as a civil union. The two would be entirely separate–just like church and state are supposed to be.
Again, I want to make clear this is nothing more than a trial balloon idea to be discussed. I’m not absolutely committed to it. Right off hand, however, I can’t think of a good argument against it unless such an argument assumes that the government should dabble in religious matters. But someone thinks that, then why shouldn’t the government decide who is really ordained or really baptized? In some countries it does. Those are countries without separation of church and state. We’ve long ago decided that those things are none of the government’s business. Why should marriage (as contrasted with civil union) be?