A Question for Conservative Christians and GLBT Rights Advocates: Why Not Civil Unions?
One of my earliest posts to this blog was a proposal to settle the controversy over “gay marriage.” Earlier I had written my proposal in a column published by the local newspaper. Both the column and the later blog post received angry responses. Cultural conservatives (mostly Christians) and GLBT rights advocates agreed that my proposal was unacceptable. But I still don’t understand why and this time I’d like to invite thoughtful people to respond civilly to my proposal and explain here why it’s unacceptable to them.
So here’s my proposal: Take “marriage” away from the government (any government authority or agency) and relegate it completely to the private sphere—especially (although government wouldn’t enforce this) religious institutions. The government (state, county, whatever) would issue “civil union licenses” that have nothing to do with sex. In my proposal, a civil union could be formed by any two people (only two for purely practical reasons) above the age of minority. A civil union would mean that the two people involved could share property (“common property”), make decisions about each other in emergencies, have special visitation rights in case of hospitalization, etc., etc. Just like marriage now, a civil union would have to be formally dissolved; the two people could not just walk away from each other. They would have legal rights and obligations to each other. But calling it a civil union would take everything associated with sex, that is, government sanctioning sex between people or not, out of the picture. All but religiously based organizations would have to recognize civil unions for purposes of benefits, etc.
Further to my proposal: “Marriage” would be a matter for private judgment. Two people who want to be married could go to a church or synagogue or whatever and do what is necessary to gain that blessing and recognition. A religious organization could bless two people’s union as “marriage” whether or not they form a civil union. It could recognize civil union as marriage or not. Some churches already do not recognize second or third “marriages” as real marriage when a former spouse is still alive (even though the government does). Two people in civil union could call their civil union marriage or not. If they want their civil union formally blessed in a religious way, they could find a religious organization (church, synagogue, whatever) that would do that. But no religious organization would be required to bless civil unions as marriages or even recognize them as marriages for purposes within their own organization.
This is already the case in some countries of the world including some Latin American countries where the Roman Catholic Church has formal recognition by the government as a quasi-official state religion.
So how would this solve the contemporary controversy? It would make it moot. Two gay people (for example) who want to be “married” could find a religious organization that will marry them and/or they could form a civil union and call it marriage (or not). But so could a brother and sister or two roommates who simply want the benefit of civil union but have no interest in having sex with each other. A religious organization that does not believe in “gay marriage” would not have to marry gay people or recognize their unions as marriage. A retired couple who don’t want, for whatever reason, to have a civil union (maybe there are tax advantages to not having a government recognized civil union) could be married by their church or synagogue (etc.) without the government ever knowing about it. Government would pay no attention whatever to the matter of marriage; that would be solely for religious authorities to decide within their own denominations and churches or synagogues (etc.).
Now, obviously, this proposal needs more fleshing out with regard to specifics—especially civil unions. However, my proposal is relatively simple. All the civil benefits of marriage would be transferred over to civil unions but all the legal restrictions on who could form marriages would be stripped from civil unions except majority age and the limitation to two people. (More than two could call their relationship “marriage” if they wanted to; there would be no law forbidding it.) At the same time religious organizations would have sole ownership of “marriage” which would be regarded as a private covenant by the government to be governed solely by private, non-profit organizations without government oversight or interference (including that anyone could call their relationship marriage so far as government is concerned).
Here’s an analogy. Some states have finally given up trying to decide who is really licensed or ordained legally to perform a marriage ceremony. Two people can marry each other without benefit of clergy or judge or anyone except the government official who issues and recognizes the marriage license or certificate.( In other words, for all practical purposes, these states have already made “marriage” a civil union only. My proposal would simply expand that to allowing any two people of majority age to form a civil union.) This is as it should be because I don’t want any government entity deciding what religious group’s ministerial licenses or ordinations are valid and what ones aren’t. Ordination should be and now mostly is a matter for private judgment. The next step is to do the same with marriage. And doing it according to my proposal would, should, bring an end to the whole “gay marriage” controversy.
So my question to critics of my proposal is “Why not?” Explain in rational terms why you oppose it. To GLBT people I ask why this wouldn’t satisfy. To cultural conservatives I ask why this is unacceptable to them.