A modest proposal to end the gay marriage debate

A modest proposal to end the gay marriage debate August 10, 2010

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?

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  • Interesting proposal Roger!

    I agree that the state has an interest to some degree in the family (who is “joined together”), however this is an institution created by God and is recognized across all (most anyway) belief systems. That is Christian, non-Christian, and atheist all understand the concept.

    “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.”

    This is one area I am not sure I totally support – though I may need to think about it more. That the government would manage “unions” independently of “marriage” and vice versa however, could create a very difficult environment for families. Should a commited Christian couple be married both God and the state? What would the state do for the couples married only by a church when disputes and divorce were at stake? It would also seem that parental rights (which are under fire) would need to be established before the state to protect the family and thus require a union in addition to marriage. While your proposal allows for this, its seems that it more confusion not less could result. What about a couple married only in a church (say Episcopal) – could/should other churches (say Baptist) recognize the marriage or require them to get “re-married” to become members? Could a couple switch denominations to “desolve” their marriage – practically if not before God? What about those married “outside the church” who then come to faith. Should they get “re-married”? We they not already married before God even if only the state conducted the ceremony and recorded the vows?

    While I think that the government may need to “know” who is “joined together” to handle family disputes, family property, and parent rights – one thing that we could work on is getting the government less involved in the lives of its citizens in general. Removal of the benefits, like fairer tax system that does not give benefits to married and not-married might have prevented much of the debate.

    Thanks again.

  • My friend Chris and I have talked about a similar compromise, and we both agree with it. For me, that is really my heart: the state should not have a say on marriage, it is a religous institution.

    The other side of it is that we cannot control language. People will call it ‘marriage’ regardless of what the state calls it. So even if we are preventing gay marriage by name, are we really? That’s sort of the question to be asked.

  • Bravo.

  • I don’t have much of a problem with your idea but I fear that the United States government would impose the legalization of homosexual unions upon those churches that preach that homosexuality is indeed a sin. The government could, in those cases, rule that such churches are preaching a hate doctrine and would try to force churches to either “marry” homosexuals or at least stop preaching against it. Sadly, it seems many churches already don’t preach against this sin or many others.

  • Mike

    How is this proposal much different than the way it works now? Couples already need to get a marriage license from the State. Though they may choose to have a religious marriage as well, it isn’t required. Churches don’t even require it.

    The only difference I can see is expanding the State license to allow homosexual couples to obtain one. As far as the church marriage goes, some churches will also perform the ceremony, some won’t, but that’s no different then the way it works now.

    What am I missing?

  • Roger,
    It seems to me though Biblically speaking that the early church / Jewish Priesthood was never involved in presiding at any marriage ceremony. It was up to the man and womans parents to organise and their families to come together to witness the event.

    Church involvement within marriage didn’t fully come about till the intergration of both the church and state within the Roman Empire. So today what we consider the norm for marriage within Christian circles is actually more cultural and traditional / superstitional that takes its foundation from the early Roman Catholicism more so then what it can claim as a Biblical and early church historical truth.

  • I have just blogged about this issue myself.

    Its been an interesting journey to get to where I have.

  • Raymond Coffey

    Several questions about your proposal: 1) Are you calling civil unions a “marriage” recognized by the state? Is is marriage or civil union? 2) Does the church speak to the state in moral issues at all? 3) Where do civil unions end? What if a mother and son want to enter a civil union for the purpose of legal and financial status? Does the church speak to that issue? It of course is feasible given the premises of the argument.
    Thanks for entering the debate.

  • Historically speaking the church was never invovled in the marriage / wedding ceremony until the RC church ratified in 1550AD that for a marriage to be proper it had to have a priest preside at it with 2 witness’s…of course there was a tax that went with that.
    Martin Luther wrote about the issue that it was a worldly issue and the church shouldnt be involved as it was both a private and state / social matter… The marriage act was passed in 1753 England where it was mandated the Church England had to preside at every wedding….
    Just because society recognises marriage of various kinds…doesn’t mean the church has to… and many people in society have been wrongly judged and labled by the church for living in sin, bastards born out of wedlock etc because they have not conformed to the churches idea of marriage….when historically living together constituted marriage….
    Have you ever asked yourself why it wasn’t part of the priestly duties to preside at weddings when Moses established the priesthood?