A Question for Conservative Christians and GLBT Rights Advocates: Why Not Civil Unions?

A Question for Conservative Christians and GLBT Rights Advocates: Why Not Civil Unions? April 4, 2013

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.


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  • LauraC

    I am a fairly theologically conservative Christian who has often wondered about the same thing. I’m sure it would take tweeking and of course, there would be problems, I’m sure. Sounds reasonable to me!

  • IN the UK, where we have the odd situation that ministers of the Church of England are licensed civil registrars (by dint of their ordination, because of the establishment of the church) this clearly wouldn’t work. But there might be a wider objection which is this: Christians believe that the Scriptures teach there is something distinct both personally and socially to a relationship that involves sexual union, rather than something that is merely a contract between two parties. your proposal appears to suggest that the sexual element may or may not be present, and that a civil union isn’t fundamentally different depending on whether or not the sexual element is present. If a brother and sister are in such a civil union, what cultural or legal boundaries are there to prevent this becoming a sexual relationship and therefore incestuous?

    • rogereolson

      I’m not aware that there are any laws that criminalize a brother and sister having sex. In my proposal, a “civil union” has nothing to do with sex. Theoretically there could be laws that criminalize certain people in civil unions from having sex with each other. In my proposal a civil union is blind to the sex issue; it is only the government’s way of allowing two people to share property, make important decisions for each other (e.g., in medical emergencies), etc. But, people in a civil union can call it whatever they want to. And their sexual behavior is their business (insofar as other laws allow it). Again, I’m not aware of any laws in the U.S. that expressly criminalize brothers and sisters from having sex. They’re not allowed to marry, but if they choose to have sex with each other (and I have known of it), who would even know? Having children is another matter entirely. I think there ought to be laws that criminalize persons involved in incenstuous sex from having offspring. They should be jailed if they have a child. But these days, if, say, a brother and sister wanted to have sex (God forbid!) they could easily avoid procreating.

      • Adam

        I am a criminal defense lawyer and I can assure you that in most states in the United States it is a crime called “incest” for a brother and sister, and various other close blood relatives, to engage in any kind of sexual contact together even if it is consensual. But, I do not think that in any way impacts your overall argument which is just that the government could sanction “civil union” without authorizing or approving of otherwise unlawful conduct.

        • rogereolson

          Exactly. Are incest laws in the category of blue laws rarely if ever enforced (except when a minor is involved)?

  • Percival

    Your proposal makes a lot of sense, but neither side will like it. It’s not about legal rights.

    From the right, they will see any compromising as a loss, and they cling to the myth of a Christian nation which must be upheld against all challenges. If they give in on this, it gives people the right to define marriage in any non-traditional way they wish. That’s a loss for their dreams of a righteous America and the central role of Christianity in the American identity.

    From the other side, they won’t like it because it doesn’t give them what they want.They can already have legal rights through civil unions. What they demand is complete acceptance of their identity as equals. This means legal protection, not of legal rights, but to remove anyone’s right to marginalize their orientation and lifestyle choices.

    • rogereolson

      I agree there are extremists who won’t like my proposal for the reasons you give. But I think the vast majority of Americans have simply not understood this proposal. If and when they do, I think they will embrace it.

      • Percival

        Another possible implication of this proposal is that common law marriage would no longer be recognized. What are the implications for the rights of a woman who has acted as a wife and mother for a number of years but who never made it official through a civil union?

        • rogereolson

          Simple. “Common law civil unions.”

  • Tim Reisdorf

    Your proposal is more acceptable than many others, but it would not “bring an end” to the whole controversy. Those who are pushing for a redefinition of marriage will use this as a wedge issue until it absolutely cannot be used as such anymore. That time will not come until gay individuals have unbounded government sanction to cohabitate and call it marriage and everyone else must rejoice in their union upon threat of punishment. That is the “new tolerance” in our world today. You are looking for sensible solutions, others (groups more than individuals) are looking to use the issue to grab power – it’s not the issue in particular that is important, it’s the power that the issue can be used for to increase dominance in society.

    I am sad for just having written that, for it is a sad thing to write; but I believe it to be true.

    • rogereolson

      I think you are talking about extremists. I am hopeful that the vast middle ground of pragmatically-minded people will accept my proposal. As another person quoted to me here yesterday: “The dogs will bark but the caravan moves on.”

      • Tim Reisdorf

        In MN, we recently rejected the “one-man-one-woman” definition for our State Constitution. But a proposal coming from the GOP that is similar to yours is being rejected by the Democrats because they sense they can get more – full “Gay Marriage”. Link here.

  • J.E. Edwards

    Roger, I find myself deeply disappointed and heart-broken by this post. You didn’t ask for us to critique you, so I won’t. I will try to explain why I oppose any form of same-sex union. If there is a current issue that believers should oppose it is this one. I will never imply or infer that marriage is anything other than between a man and a woman. That is an assumption that I begin with. It never entered my mind that it could be anything else, even though it is a discussion today. As it relates to this nation, (because this shouldn’t relate to other foreign practices) marriage has traditionally been a religious practice. What has been laid out here is a terrible compromise on sinful behavior. Things have shifted in this political culture to what is legal or illegal. Legislating something as legal or illegal does not do away with the rightness or wrongness of it. It wasn’t so long ago that things of this nature were considered moral issues. Issues of conscience. Legislating this behavior through political means is proof that it would NEVER be accepted as a mainstream practice. Christians have long known that legislating their beliefs and forcing them on others will never work. Yet, that is being done to believers now…and it is becoming acceptable to do so and being called tolerance. Simply separating these into religious and civil unions is only coming in the back door to redefine what marriage is and ought to be. Also, by the very nature of the culture and its hatred of anything Christian this position will never be happy until it forces everyone to accept it. This culture will not accept what has been proposed here.
    If there is anything that shows who evangelicals are or are not, this is one of them. Only relying on orthodoxy to state ones evangelical-ness doesn’t work here. Those who accept this sinful behavior and want to make room for it lose the distinction of calling themselves an evangelical. Steve Chalke and Rob Bell (among others) no longer get to call themselves evangelicals. I know the discussion here is what evangelicalism is, maybe it would be clearer if we stated what it isn’t. Do we have the stomach for that? I hope so.

    • rogereolson

      I think you completely miss my point. “Civil union” has nothing to do with sex. Any two adults can already engage in sex legally. In my proposal a “civil union” has another purpose entirely–to provide special benefits and protections to individuals who want or need another person with whom to share property, make life and death decisions for them, etc., etc. By no means do I endorse sex between people who are not married and you ungenerously read that I do into my proposal. I shouldn’t even post it here because I consider it bordering on the uncivil, but I will give you the benefit of the doubt that you simply misread my proposal. Go back and read it again and then response without bringing sex into it. That’s not even involved in my proposal.

      • J.E. Edwards

        I didn’t mean to sound uncivil. You said, “In my proposal a “civil union” has another purpose entirely–to provide special benefits and protections to individuals who want or need another person with whom to share property, make life and death decisions for them…”
        I do understand what you are trying to say. It is a perspective, for sure. However, this will never stand still. It will be a back door to redefine what marriage is. This is what the GLBT culture will use to come through it. That is why I cannot come to the same conclusion you have. I’m not really sure what means are in place to help the folks you listed above, but this is a dangerous and slippery place to stand. This may have come across more clearly if you hadn’t asked for the approval from the GLBT community. I suppose that is where my concerns lie here. Sorry for the misunderstanding.

    • Bob

      You first have to actually produce a sound Biblical argument for why Christians should engage in political advocacy in order to control the actions of non-believers. Or why Christians should engage at all in the political actions of civil government. I have yet to see this.

  • Great minds think alike. (Or, if your original blog was posted well before mine, maybe I read yours, forgot I read it, thought I came up with the idea on my own later, but actually inadvertently plagiarized you!)

    • rogereolson

      I’m sure it must be that! 🙂 No, seriously, I think this proposal is so obvious that any reasonable person could come up with it on their own. After all, it’s the status quo in many countries of the world.

      • Holly

        They (LGBT) simply do not want it, Roger.

        • rogereolson

          Some have responded positively.

  • Hermitcrab

    I’m wondering the same. Ill be watching for the comments.

  • Joe Canner

    Being neither conservative nor LGBT (although a somewhat vocal supporter of the latter), I’m not the target of your question, but I will answer anyway. I would support your proposal, which is not that different from what is currently being done in Europe. I think the reason LGBT folks object is that when they hear “civil union” they assume that they are being offered a second-class alternative. However, under your proposal, everyone would be treated the same, so there wouldn’t be a “second class”: those who want the legal benefits get the civil union and those who want the spiritual benefits get the church marriage. These days, it wouldn’t be hard to find a church willing to offer the latter to a same-sex couple.

    • rogereolson


  • K Gray

    A few comments on premises – and I make these only because I have closely followed this issue through actual legal opinions from Griswold through the most recent Supreme Court arguments:

    You asked that responses be in rational terms — for your purposes here, would this include Biblical wisdom, or is it more of a legal/ economic/logical/social question? That leaves out a great deal for people who believe that God’s wisdom benefits all of mankind, and that biological and biochemical gender differences, as well as social science, confirm His wisdom. Yet increasingly, scientific and social gender differences are rejected as evidence, and put in the category of religious-based “gender-role” beliefs which cannot be considered as a rational basis for a law. As you probably know, this is an actual dispute in same-sex marriage legal opinions. Judges increasingly use a strict rationality and strict egalitarianism that refuses to recognize even anatomy and physiology (such as child bearing, mothering, fathering, breast feeding), or any gender differences whatever. Also there is a larger ongoing division among jurists on whether consensus morality may be one of the bases on which a law may be upheld. Increasingly, the answer is no (even though “thou shalt not kill” is certainly moral).

    But I am leaving out both Biblical references and morality for purposes of response here.

    Second, your simple proposal — made more fully by a number of others — would have multifaceted and complex effects. A closely-related analogy of a simple proposal with deep, wide and complex effects is: what if our government stays out of gender, and can no longer ask, know, classify or consider gender for any reason? Response both simple proposals requires multiple areas of expertise: in existing governmental benefits, social science, constitutional law, state law (because the marriage relationship generally falls within the jurisdiction of states), history, studies of similar evolutions in other countries, economics, tax, etc.

    Someone has probably already attempted to compile these considerations somewhere.

    Third, a question: what basic commitment, representation or pledge would civil union partners make in order to receive government recognition and benefits you posit? This greatly affects any response.

    Response: My primary concern is the effect on children’s stability, well-being and development through the tie to their biological parents, particularly to their fathers. If your proposal hastens the trend toward serial monogamy and shorter-term relationships based largely on adults’ convenience and preference, the results will not be good. I do wonder if non-marital relationships are shorter-term than marriages (I don’t know the answer to that, it is a question). Shorter relationships not only destabilize children’s lives but undermine economic stability for both parents (or partners). Breakups are costly, moving is costly, travel to see different parents is costly, emotional turmoil is extremely costly. Marriage is the biggest commitment most people may make. The very meaning and testimony of ‘commitment’ may be affected.

    I work with a largely non-marriage female population. Generally speaking, these women have had a number of serial relationships, some of which have produced children. Results for these children include weak or no ties to the biological father; the presence of unrelated adult males — some with their own children — which is not always safe; increased risk of domestic violence, accidents, and sudden family disruption; and instability and poverty. Many prefer their relationships to remain beneath the government radar (sometimes because it may affect their SNAP or other benefits). Bureucracy is a problem for them. I wonder whether civil unions — the bureaucracy without the ‘dream’ (and yes many of them have a dream of long-term marriage) — would attract them? I don’t know, one way or the other.

    • rogereolson

      My proposal assumes the situation that unmarried persons are already capable of having and raising and adopting children. My proposal starts with the status quo and goes from there. You seem to be raising questions about the status quo.

      • K Gray

        I see it as a trajectory — a bad trend furthered if civil unions replace marriage as the norm.

        Another concern is the “atomization” of marriage on the church side. First, when you remove the state from marriage a void is left. The church (churches, denominations, church heirarchies) administer marriage now. If you truly want the state out of marriage, then each church, denomination and/or heirarchy must:

        Decide who may marry whom
        If, when and how the marriage may be ended
        Divorce issues: custody, support, property, housing, etc.
        Enforcement?? What happens if a parent (peacefully) fails to comply?

        These issues will develop differently and vary among denominations. Marriage could be “atomized” by splitting into as many meanings and forms are there are genuine church bodies (currently, the state does decide whether to recognize a “religion” or “church” for purposes of various governmental issues). Meanwhile, civil union partners — with their simple contracts — appear much freer to join and separate, simply filing a dissolution at the impersonal courthouse. Perhaps that will appear much more attractive than a body of church folks administering your marriage. And, if civil unions (administered by government) and marriages (administered by churches) develop on two separate tracks, won’t that further societal divisions?

        The take-the-state-out-of-marriage idea is rational but rationality must be followed to its logical ends, adding in human behavior, incentives, morality, religion and history as well. ( a comparison: In law there is a concept of the “efficient breach” of contract: that is, it is rational and logical to breach a contract when the breach is less costly than fulfilling the contract. But efficient breach undermines whole systems of economy and law, are often considered morally bad, and have intangible consequences to the breacher (who is no longer considered trustworthy for future contracts). Simple rational ideas may lead many places that were not intended.

        It is an interesting thought experiment. I thought someone would weigh in theologically here.

        • rogereolson

          In my opinion, churches and denominations ought to be deciding these matters (for, within themselves) already. The Catholic Church does. Why not the rest of us? How theologically correct is it for churches to just go along with whatever government says in matters ethical and moral such as marriage?

          • K Gray

            As long as Christians who propose separation of marriage and state recognize what they are asking of their churches! 🙂

        • Holly

          Who would stand up for women who are abused in patriarchal churches? A woman in such a situation (if they never bothered to get the civil union taken care of…) would have no legal rights. Who stands up for the children in the same situation?

          • rogereolson

            How would my proposal change anything from the status quo–in that regard? The state could recognize “common law civil unions” just as it now recognizes common law marriages.

  • Laurel

    I totally agree and have been of this opinion for a long time. The government gives “birth certificates” for legal reasons; it doesn’t get involved in differing opinions about baptism, leaving that up to the churches. A civil union would be a matter of legality; “marriage”, would be up to the individuals’ beliefs. I think that the reason this doesn’t go over with gay marriage advocates is that they want more than just a legally binding and benefit-giving option. Those I know want full moral and religious “acceptance”, and since they cannot get it from those who disagree, they want that acceptance enforced by the government. A lot of gay marriage opponents want their opinions enforced by the government also; they don’t want a civil union to be able to be called “marriage”. The truth is the truth – marriage ordained and sanctioned by God is between a man and a woman. Knowing that isn’t enough for gay marriage opponents and is anathema to gay marriage advocates.

    • rogereolson

      I suspect you’re right about why many on both sides won’t like my proposal for settle for it, but I just don’t get it with regard to gay rights advocates. Under my proposal they go find a church that will marry them. There are many. What difference does it make what the government calls their relationship so long as they have all the rights and benefits they are seeking?

      • Ward Chanley

        It’s not that there’s a specific problem with your proposal in the view of some, or many LGBT-rights advocates, including this one.

        I, for one, would be perfectly fine with applying a different legal label to my relationship for the sake of government recognition and rights protection, while still maintaining my absolute right to define my marriage as a marriage, privately, as I choose to.

        The problem isn’t one of nomenclature, but rights protection. As you’re seeing here in the comments, the idea of *any* legal recognition for gay couples, *regardless of the label* is going to be opposed by some folks.

        We can quibble over whether or not that’s a vocal minority, but the simple fact is that it’s an influential group, no matter its size. As a purely practical political argument, this idea has merit, *if it were realistically possible to implement, but it isn’t.* Marriage as a legal entity isn’t going away, no matter how well-intentioned, or reasonable this position seems on its face. Regardless of what other, sanitized label you try and shoehorn gay relationships into, folks opposed to LGBT equality will still call it marriage, because it is, and they’ll still oppose *any* legal sanction, or rights protection for those couples.

        I’d be perfectly *happy* to get the government out of the marriage-sanctioning business, but in the real world, that simply will not happen, and the only realistic way forward is to expand access to marriage rights without regard for religious biases. We already have several decades of evidence that “separate but equal” isn’t actually equal, either in practical terms on the ground, or in abstract terms (even if everything else is for all practial purposes equal, racial segregation doesn’t pass constitutional muster on equal protection grounds).

        Now, that’s not to say as a purely abstract argument that it would be impossible in an ideal world to get everybody on the same page with regard to civil union as the legal framework, and let religion do whatever it wishes as a separte, legally nonbinding arragement – which, again in an abstract sense, is an argument I agree with – but that doesn’t make any practical difference on the ground, because we do not live in that ideal world, nor will we, any time soon.

        Marriage as a legal construct isn’t going away. Given that, christians, or members of other religions with irrational biases against gay folks, have absolutely no right to deny marriage rights to groups they choose to see as undeserving. It’s *irrelevant* that they do.

        • rogereolson

          Compromise is always initially opposed by absolutists. Those who say “It won’t work, so forget it” don’t help.

  • I think this is a good idea, but I just don’t think it will ever happen in the U.S. Many of us fighting for marriage equality would probably agree with the proposal. But, considering the unlikelihood of that happening, redefining marriage seems to be the only available alternative.

    • rogereolson

      But in many parts of the U.S. your “redefining marriage” won’t happen. And my question to you is–how far are you willing to go in redefining marriage? What would you say to a brother and sister who want to be married? “Sorry, you can’t?” Sounds like what gay marriage opponents say to you (or gay people who want to marry). Don’t scoff. I read an article recently about a brother and sister in Germany who are married because German law doesn’t expressly forbid it. I am certain that IF marriage is “redefined” to include same sex couples, next will be closely related couples who demand the right to marry. The fact that IF they had children the children might be born with birth defects is no longer a reason not to let them marry. It’s easy to avoid giving birth. That would have to be a separate issue.

      • I’m not nearly as worried about the slippery slope in this debate. It’s totally possible that more things will become “normal.” But, I just don’t see the masses moving in those directions. Despite our increasing “tolerance” for same sex relationships, what is really being changed is for homosexuals to become “just like us heterosexuals.” Better? Yes. But, of course, that change will bring about its own problems.

      • Ward Chanley

        We aren’t asking to “redefine” marrage any more than heterosexuals already *have done.* This argument that we’re “redefining” marriage, in the modern world where marriages are marriages until they’re annuled two days later, or marriages between couples who choose not to procreate are themselves marriages, so long as the penis-vagina count matches the religiously sanctioned quota is entirely hypocritical.

        Sure, plenty of religious conservatives set their hair on fire amongst themselves over things like quickie marriages, or marriages that don’t meet their religious biases, but they don’t seek to force all straight folks to conform to those ideas through the force of law.

        If christians opposed kept their objections out of the law, this would be an entirely different discussion.

      • Gregory Peterson

        Unrelated Gay couples are not incestuous couples. You’re also saying what those who were against legalizing the “unnatural, like incest, sin of miscegenation.” You’re just defaming a minority group here.

        Family dynamics probably makes it unlikely that true consent is involved in incestuous affairs. The Gay movement is an egalitarian movement with the concept of “consenting adults” as a central tenet, something of which conservative Evangelicals and the Bible Belt don’t have a good history of supporting. Ask the children of Don and Mildred Loving about that. (Mrs. Loving, if memory serves, endorsed marriage equality before her death.)

        • rogereolson

          I asked for reasonable responses. I don’t think you even read my proposal carefully.

  • John Mark

    My short answer is right from your post; many GLBT advocates, especially the militant segment, will not accept it. I am for getting the state out of the marriage business, as I have been recently told it was for the first 500 to 1000 years of church history. But I don’t see that happening.

  • M Viator

    Because you will continue to allow for the notion that the State did recognize marriages between opposite sex couples, and when faced with the 14th Amendment’s demand for Equal Treatment under the law, you retreated to simply getting out of the marriage business altogether. In so doing, you continue to validate religious conservatives’ theological objections to marriage equality, you deny LGBT people due process of the law by denying them the opportunity for redress of the discrimination, you deny religious and cultural liberals the equal treatment of the law (as they DO issue religious marriages to couples of any gender pairing), and you frankly attempt to continue to permit religiously motivated bigotry in the public square.

    And frankly, until you do something to address the reality that people can get a quickie marriage in Vegas that is annulled 55 hours later, your arguments are almost always going to reek of distaste for homosexual intercourse. That’s really the root of it all, isn’t it? Religious conservatives see marriage as the only permissible vehicle through which individuals are “allowed” to participate in and celebrate sexuality. The real issue is that when homosexual sex is “sanctified” by the bonds of matrimony, it means just that: somewhere, two men are engaging in sexual relations with each other without any remorse, shame, or pressure to repent and be saved. By being in a marriage, the cultural pressure is off: they are in the time-honored vehicle society has developed to foster and encourage productive sexual relations amongst humans.

    At every other juncture in our American history, bigotry against a class of people has always and emphatically been justified “in the name of God.” And at each one of those junctures, our culture has eventually thoroughly repudiated the reasoning. Slavery, and racism, are a 2000 year old institution as well: we rightfully refuted that shameful legacy of a primitive age.

    I would posit to you as a religious liberal that the task of God is truly unconditional love. Religious conservatives spend so much time desperately trying to render judgments based on their flawed and strongly culturally biased readings of texts that are literally thousands of years old. They focus far too much on the ways that ancient religious peoples excluded themselves from others through judgment and arbitrary values and vastly ignore the constant rebuke that God gives to these peoples for their hubris, their arrogance, and their cruelty. Ironically, religious conservatives would say that the LGBT community are the individuals engaging in hubris against the Will of God; but as for me, I would posit that God throughout all of our sacred texts *always* rebukes people for being too exclusionary of people based on characteristics that He doesn’t actually care about, not the other way around.

    • rogereolson

      You don’t seem to grasp that my proposal is purely pragmatic–to move past the impasse and give everyone what they really want. Unless, of course, what they “really want” is simply to win over the “other side.” In my proposal, a gay couple can be married. I don’t see what your complaint is.

      • Ward Chanley

        “You don’t seem to grasp that my proposal is purely pragmatic”

        It may seem pragmatic, but it isn’t. You’re not actually going to do away with marraige as a legal construct. (Nor, frankly, do I suspect the bulk of heterosexuals wish to do so. We’re just left with some heterosexuals who wish to assert that marrage – whatever it’s called – is exclusive to them.)

        Your proposal doesn’t actually address any of this, and is instead fairly ivory-tower abstraction.

  • Gil

    I think there are good reasons to maintain the cultural norm of marriage as being between one man and one woman that appeal to broader social goods, and not specifically religious or theological arguments. Marriage is a structural way of maximizing the chance that children will grow up knowing both biological parents while suggesting that it is in the interest of society for those relationships to be characterized by a strong level of commitment (or covenant). This view of marriage relativizes the relationship itself in light of its wider contribution to social cohesion and child development. This is what might be lost if ” civil unions” became the lowest common denominator and if private individuals were left to determine what (if any) significance they wanted their relationship to have. If “marriage” is a word that refers only to the social or legal validation of emotional and sexual bonds between people, then there is no good reason to oppose gay marriage. The real debate, it seems to me at least, is not about gay marriage, it’s about the meaning of marriage itself.

    • rogereolson

      My proposal begins with the assumption of the status quo. The train has already left the station, so to speak, and it isn’t coming back. All kinds of people in all kinds of “families” already are raising children. I have my opinions about what’s best, but reversing to what they might be is not going to happen.

      • K Gray

        Actually – sadly – no one is talking about reversing trend which are bad for children. The choice posited is to keep as norm an institution which social sciences say benefits children (mom and dad marriage), or to largely replace it (in civic spheres) with a less stable, less committed norm. If the train is headed someplace bad, why speed it up?

  • Amy Buckley

    Thank you. I have long thought civil unions could solve lots of problems. Still, as an advocate for abused women, I question what would happen if extreme conservatives black-balled “civil unions” (avoiding ties to an institution that GLBT rights advocates embrace)… I question what would happen to abused women (and their children) who find themselves without legal rights when facing harmful, even life-threatening, situations that church leaders so often fail to recognize, much less address appropriately. Sadly, ultra- conservative denominations have higher rates of domestic abuse than secular society while mainstream evangelical communities display the same rates as secular communities… One in three to four women–sitting in churches on Sunday morning–are dealing with some form of abuse… At least 65% of their children experience abuse… correlating later with high school delinquency, substance abuse, incarceration… Women and children already struggle with inefficient advocacy and insufficient resources when dealing with domestic abuse and violence… While I like many aspects of what you propose, I question what unintended effects it would have on those who usually become “widows and orphans” in the wake of domestic abuse.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t see how my proposal would make things worse or any other public policy proposal would make things better (other than tighter laws and enforcement against domestic abuse which could happen equally with or without my proposal).

      • Amy Buckley

        If abused women found themselves solely under the jurisdiction of churches, with regard to their marriage vows, so many would become re-victimized by church leaders who often fail to recognize abuse (i.e. they consider it a submission problem in the part of women, etc.). Sadly, many pastors tell abused women to go back to their husbands and submit to abuse in order to win them to Christ (a misinterpretation of 1 Cor. 7:15). I have seen this, and heard these kinds of stories, over and over, while working with abused women in the Boston area. It’s heartbreaking that many pastors fail to recognize abuse and send when back with instructions that sound as if they are coming from God’s Word. I mean that I fear many extreme conservatives would not take part in civil unions because homosexuals do (wanting no appearance of buying into a legal system that supports homosexuals). Then those women, and their children, would be left to the jurisdiction of church leaders who so often fail to support them in situations of abuse (re-victimizing them). They would have no recourse with the U.S. legal system, which would increase the difficulty of their situation. Al Miles has written a great book about “What Every Pastor Needs to Know About Domestic Abuse.” Even well-meaning ones make honest mistakes. The U.S. legal system is in place to make sure there is equitable division of assets, child support, health insurance, etc. in the wake of separation from an abusive partner. What would happen if that disappeared because those rights could only be claimed with a “civil union” ?

        • rogereolson

          Why couldn’t there be “common law civil unions”–just as there are now (in many states) common law marriages–mainly to protect women? I don’t see how my proposal changes that situation. But the best thing for any man or woman to do who is afraid of abuse is insists on having a civil union as well as marriage. I think church leaders should and would urge married couples to also have civil unions. I can’t imagine anyone thinking they don’t want a civil union because “that’s what gays have.” My proposal isn’t about gays per se; any two people can have a civil union.

          • Amy Buckley

            I am with you about civil unions. All people deserve a just system with legal support. One time I heard the testimony of a homosexual man who had endured years of abuse from his partner. He never thought that would happen before committing to his partner for life in After ten plus years, he finally had had enough. He relayed, with utter humiliation, the abuse he had silently endured as he pondered what to do because the house (that he invested in with all he had) was in the name of his partner. He explained how he stayed in the relationship because he would lose his investment, also because his abusive partner controlled their united money. Such is the complicated situation of abuse victims (whether gay or straight). They don’t imagine such a thing happening before it does… Listening to his story, I believed it unjust, even sinful, for our society not to change the system that leaves people like that man with so few options (whether gay or straight). In that sense I am with you. But, as I have worked with abuse victims, who have been “under the authority” of certain conservative-minded church leaders, I have been shocked at the injustices those leaders promote as they rule their own communities. You mention that:”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.” I fear what would happen in such a case–if there is abuse–and the government doesn’t know about it.” Would that woman find herself in the same position as the homosexual man I mentioned before? Thanks for your thoughtful responses. Blessings, Amy B.

  • Steve Dominy

    It sounds good to me. I’ve always wondered why government was involved in marriage anyway except for taxation purposes and adjudicating divorce proceedings. In a recent discussion with a friend over this matter, he mentioned that Baptists shouldn’t have any problem with it if we really do agree with the separation of church and state.

    • rogereolson

      I have been told, although I’m sure someone will come here with contrary evidence, that “marriage licenses” were first issued by government entities (in the U.S.) solely to prohibit certain persons from marrying. Before that marriage was strictly a religious affair that people then could register with the state or county if they wished.

  • gene

    Roger, Excellent question. Your suggestion is one I also offered to my wife. I wasn’t surprised however to see others have thought of this very idea. I we might agree, if push comes to shove, eventually this is how things will end up. Seems like it’s easier for the church to concede gay monogomaous mariage as God did divorce. Keeping peace is an important thing for us, don’t you think? But most Christians conservatives I’ve spoken to hate the idea of concession and so I’ve drawn out your very suggestion to them.

  • Brett Burrowes

    Thank you for a sane solution to the issue. I have had the same idea, since Christians would not feel obligated to recognize gay couples as “married.” And gay couples would get equal rights and equal treatment before the law, which are genuine problems that Christians generally do not recognize. But I suspect that the LGBT community would reject this solution, since “marriage” signifies a level of acceptance within society that civil unions do not. It is the symbolic power and significance of the married state, as much as any rights pertaining to civil marriage, that makes it so important and attractive to the LGBT community.

    • rogereolson

      I fear you’re right, but that is based on their confusion. I don’t think “marriage” carries that status anymore–except among religiously-inclined people. And GLBT people could easily get married, just not by the government (which nobody could).

      • Ward Chanley

        This seems to be verging dangerously close to asserting that “secular” (non-) marriages are so fallen in these modern times that, well, even queers ought to get access to them so long as we don’t use the M-word.

        Marriage isn’t just a religious ceremony, though it’s certainly that for some folks. (Even some LGBT folks.) Marriage carries cultural weight that “civil union” doesn’t. This is reflected in the legal reality on the ground. Civil union and domestic partnership aren’t legally equivalent to marriage, because they aren’t viewed as culturally equiavalent.

        Except that they’re dangerously close enough in the minds of some that we need to make sure they’re perpetually second- or third-class options, or they need to be forbidden in some states (because even THAT is a step too far, at least so far as it’s two men, or two women, wanting to marry.)

        The thing is, few-to-no evangelicals think they have even a snowball’s chance of limiting non-christian, or atheist, or non-procreative heterosexual marriage. Those evangelicals – rightly – recognize that they’d be widely viewed as vastly overstepping their bounds, if they tried.

        They’re overstepping, here, too. It’s just a matter of whether or not the larger culture will be blinded by seeming-tolerance, or if it will see it for what it actually is.

        • rogereolson

          Okay, you’ve said this in several ways. We get the point. I disagree. ‘Nuff said now.

  • Cary

    Dr. Olson,
    This is the type of proposal that sounds quite reasonable on the surface. I have heard other Christians make similar kinds of proposals, and the first time I heard something like this it had an initial appeal to me. Upon reflection though, I think it fails in two ways.

    First, of lesser ultimate importance, I don’t think it satisfies the socio-political objectives of most of the members of the social left. I don’t believe that they are interested in tolerance or just solving practical legal barriers for homosexuals. They are pushing for normalization and the stigmatization of anyone who would even have private personal objections. This is seen in the prevention of the Catholic Church from performing adoptions in MA after legalization unless they also facilitated gay adoptions, in the condemnation of Louie Giglio initially having been chosen to give an inaugural prayer for Obama for having supported traditional marriage in a sermon over a decade ago, and in many examples in Europe.

    In reality, though, the major problem with the idea of privatizing marriage is the one word that is not even mentioned in your post – children. Children are the primary reason that marriage is a public institution in the first place. Unfortunately our culture in large part has come to see marriage almost entirely as an object to fulfill personal desires, with ever decreasing emphasis on the responsibilities and obligations that it should entail, also. This change dates back at least to the no fault divorce laws and has been ongoing.

    Jennifer Roback Morse has been influential in my thinking on these topics since I first heard her at a lecture around 15 years ago. I could try to explain the issues with privatization more fully, but she recently posted a 3 part series addressing it far better than I could try to do here. Part 1 argues that because of children and parental rights these relationships can never be private. Part 2 argues that trying to privatize marriage in reality will reduce freedom and make the state more involved. Finally, in part 3 she makes the case that it would be harmful to children.

    The privatization of marriage would only bring more instability into the lives or more children without actually removing the state from the equation. It would just be involved in different ways than today.

    So while the idea of privatization sounds appealing, I don’t think it actually accomplishes very much, and it also has potentially greater social costs than are immediately obvious.

    Thanks for having a thoughtful blog with conversations on multiple topics. While I comment rarely, I love to read it.


    • rogereolson

      My proposal begins with the status quo. As it is, children are legally being raised by all kinds of “families.” Your objection is to something other than my proposal. It is to the status quo with regard to who legally gets to raise children.

  • Prof, you have many interesting ideas in this proposal. If religious and GLBT groups were rational, they should generally find the proposal to be without objection. However, marriage has traditionally involved property rights that become active when the marriage is dissolved. I do not see any enforcement mechanism for those rights in the case of marriage, since religious institutions have no civil powers to render financial judgments or enforce them. Did I miss that part?

    • rogereolson

      Right. To enjoy those rights couples married would have to also gain civil union status.

  • This is precisely what I want, and i have been proposing it for a couple of years. I would also add that there could be different degrees of unions. For instance, it could just involve property, or certain property. It could just involve certain legal rights. The point is to handle the legal necessities and leave the question of social significance to more social institutions, like religous ones.
    To be frank, i don’t just want this as a compromise, but it is what I would want anyway, even if there wasn’t any. I don’t really know why the gov’t has to be involved in marriage, and since I am a small gov’t type of person, the idea is just overall appealing.

  • jaymi

    I’ve been retuning to this post all day in order to read the discussion that would come from it, but there isn’t one! Is that because nobody disagrees with this anymore? I put this link on my FB and all of the comments (from all over the political spectrum) have heartily agreed with this idea.

    Maybe there IS some hope of us all agreeing eventually…….

    • rogereolson

      I only moderate the discussion once daily. So here is the discussion you seek. Good to hear from you, Jaymi. I hope you and your family are well.

  • Wayne Shaffer, Jr.

    I’m sliding from conservative to libertarian in some ways, and so I think I’d find this proposal acceptable. Among other things, I think it helps preserve the Church’s First Amendment protections. There are already attempts to use tax policies to constrain free speech rights, and “Obamacare” to compel religious groups to act against their convictions. I can foresee aggressive “civil rights” attorneys trying to compel churches to act against their convictions in regard to marriage, and I favor removing some of the potential grounds.

  • Steve Rogers

    IF your proposal was the law of the land, it probably would resolve much of the current controversy. But it isn’t, and the GLBT community is not merely seeking permission to love whomever they choose to love, they are seeking full civil rights equality with the hetero community within existing law. I doubt if they will accept anything less at this point. And, to many in the “traditional” camp any broadening of their definition of marriage to include GLBTs is an unacceptable compromise–a diminishing of their marriage status as they see it (not to mention the whole biblical morality issue). But, I’m with you, Roger, I’d much prefer a movement in the direction you have proposed rather than the hostile, judgmental and excluding atmosphere of much of the debate today.

  • Dr. Olson: Your proposal is interesting, but too late. The horse is already out of the barn; just like the abortion issue. Stubborn humanity only finally comes around to a righteous balance of behavior through ‘trial and error.’ Whatever behavioral practices are not of God will ultimately (albeit reluctantly) be consigned to the garbage heap of human history. Only that “which cannot be shaken” will remain.

  • Michael

    I actually very much like your idea. I’m a seminary trained evangelical, but I like the thought of what your presenting. Even though I like the idea/am fond of its intent I feel I need to point out that this does “weaken” the government’s rationale for marriage. Marriage between a man and a woman has as its chief benefit to society the ability to procreate and allow for society to continue… hence it being one of the oldest institutions. Marriage has many other benefits to society legally and socially, but the biggest is that it results in procreation with a margin of stability. Granted divorce occurs, people marry without ever having children etc., but at least the intent is that marriage provides a stable relationship between two people under which children can be nurtured. Arguments against homosexual marriage point out that homosexuals can’t procreate by themselves… but with modern technology the procreation aspect can be assigned to a sperm donor or surrogate. Arguments against homosexual marriage also point out that homosexual families are unstable (ironically marriage would make them more stable at least theoretically), but given the current state of the family amongst heterosexual couples that argument is weak at best. Your argument on the other hand completely removes the sexual (really should be procreation) from the issue, which yes alleviates the tension if people understand what your getting at, but in my opinion it creates a bigger problem. It removes the largest reason for the government to even sanction marriage in the first place… procreation. Government might still have a good enough reason to provide for civil unions of two people for the reasons of household stability, civil equality and property sharing, and perhaps as was mentioned before that might be more libertarian, but I think people don’t like the idea because it dramatically cheapens the whole controversy and almost eliminates the reason behind government allowing any kind of legal union marriage or not. Taking marriage out of the hands of the government also weakens the meaning of the “marriage” that religious institutions are able to grant… in other words imagine saying to someone your “married” now but it not necessarily mattering to anyone other than that religious institution that you are “married.” In a bit of an exaggerated sense I’d equate it to a bachelors degree that you pay $20 for that says you have a bachelors, but that actually means nothing to anyone else and shouldn’t because you haven’t earned it. Perhaps you can see the blurring of the line between church and state in all of this as well.

    • rogereolson

      I’m sure the same arguments were used in European countries baptism and ordination were taken out of the hands of government. But they’ve survived nevertheless. (Years ago in Sweden baptism and ordination were acts of the state as well as the church.)

  • Crœsos

    I have a counter-proposal. In the U.S. “marriage” and most of its practical implications are largely handled by the state these days, and have been for over a century now. Why not maintain that status quo and re-classify couples whose relationship is solemnized by churches or other religious authorities (but not the state) as “religious unions”? It accomplishes the same purpose and with a lot less effort.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t see how that would solve the present controversy.

      • Casey G.

        I think you are dissembling a bit. This is the same as your proposal but switching the names of the “social contracts” around. In your proposal church endorsed relationship = marriage, in crœsos proposal that is a “religious union.” It shows the power of language – it is quite a bit simpler for churches to have a separate ceremony to endorse relationships and leave the state to continue to do what it has been doing for decades already, but that is not acceptable to evangelical conservatives because they want to continue to be able to define marriage as they will. I think that evangelicals forget that marriage is a meaningful institution for many people outside of the church as well as in it and they don’t want to be “civil unioned” – they want to be married!

        • rogereolson

          Oh, please. (I’m getting irritated by all the misunderstanding or distortion of what I wrote)–In my proposal anyone can call themselves married. And anyone can disagree. It’s exactly like calling yourself “baptized.” Your church is going to agree and another one won’t. In the eyes of government nobody is baptized; it’s irrelevant.

  • Josh T.

    Personally, I think civil unions for everybody is a great, practical idea. Unfortunately, I don’t think it will happen because neither side will be willing to give up the state-sanctioned label “marriage” for political and emotional reasons. I think both sides will feel like they lost and the other side won–they will not look at it as an “everybody wins” (even though I think it is).

  • Gregory Peterson

    Equal is equal. “Civil unions” for Gay people and “marriage” for other adults creates a separate class of marriage just for a minority group, so it’s really about separating and segregating a minority group from a legal standpoint. “Civil unions” will be treated as second class and inferior to “real” marriages. Civil Unions are only tolerable as a short term, stop gap measure, and not all that acceptable, or just, as a long term measure.

    • rogereolson

      I don’t see why. In the eyes of the government, so far as legal rights are concerned, my proposal gives everyone with a civil union equality under the law. What more do you want? To force churches to marry people don’t believe are proper candidates for marriage? I think you miss the point entirely.

  • Daniel E. Johnson Sr.

    You are correct, the train has left the station. We’ve lost this one. The implosion of culture is a reality. The so-called marriage equality people will never accept anything other than gay marriage. That red light on the last rail car disappearing in the night is, to put it mildly, quite sad.

  • LarryRR

    This would have been a great idea 10 years ago, but as you alluded to before, the horse is out of the barn. Hundred of thousands of LGBTs are already have legal marriages recognized by their state, now we just need to resolve whether, or when, the government is going to recognize them. Do we tell everyone, straight and gay, that their marriages are no longer valid and are now replaced with a ‘certificate of civil union’ and those wishing to be married will need to find a church willingly to grant and bless that title? That begs the question that exists now – which churches (states) will recognize that marriage and which one will consider that marriage a sham? Will Southern Baptists or Catholics recognize any marriage ceremony that doesn’t follow their particular guidelines?

    The creation account doesn’t even mention marriage – the whole idea is replenish the earth and that has been accomplished! We now have lots of ways to procreate and prevent procreation, and lots of unions that where procreation is never an issue – older couples marrying or remarrying, infertile couples, or couples with pre-existing families that are good with what they have. To my mind, marriage is a public commitment of two people to each other that should be encouraged and celebrated. It also comes with a whole bunch of legal rights, many of which extend to next-of-kin, when necessary. How about instead giving everyone the chance to marry and calling the church-blessed version ‘holy matrimony’?

    • rogereolson

      I think you’re quibbling. The words shouldn’t matter, the rights are what matter.

      • If the words don’t matter, then why not just give them the same rights and call it “marriage”? Distinguishing terms only makes sense if the words actually do matter, don’t you think?

        • rogereolson

          At least for many religious people the word “marriage” matters a lot. I’m suggesting a compromise here. It’s like baptism. The word and its meaning are important to most churches, but we have learned to live respectfully and in peace in spite of our very strong disagreements about it. I, for example, do not recognize as legitimate “baptism” infant baptisms. But I don’t go around saying to people with only infant baptism “You’re not baptized!” I only say it (and respectfully) if they want to join my church.

  • Craig Wright

    I appreciate that you start with the status quo. As Christians we need to recognize that, yet it is interesting that despite accusations of caving into contemporary society, we can still find the church, itself, to be an intimidating place to discuss these controversial issues. I think that we need to look at the issue of homosexuality in light of Scripture, acknowledging that we need to interpret it with the scrutiny of looking at culture, genre, old and new covenants, and contemporary culture and psychology. I have found that the Bible does not seem to deal with the present situation of homosexual orientation and monogamous relationships. We cannot just say, “The Bible is very clear on this.” Church is not always a safe place for intense discussion and research.

    • rogereolson

      Agreed. But there are exceptions. The church where I attend (and am a member) has discussed every controversial topic I can think of–openly and safely. Nobody has been penalized for holding an unusual or unpopular opinion and expressing it. And it’s a Baptist church!

  • K Gray

    Could a person have more than one civil union at a time, for different purposes?

    • rogereolson

      In my proposal–no. There are practical reasons for government to allow only one civil union per person.

  • Hi, Roger.
    I’m trying to identify a group to which your proposal would be appealing. Please forgive me if I have missed something obvious.

    First, I’m not sure why there would be any compelling state interest in granting civil unions indiscriminately. In your proposal, there would be a lot of benefits for obtaining a civil union license, but no obvious incentive for the state to issue them. Governments grant benefits to married couples because they believe that marriages produce an even greater social benefit; there is a return on their investments. It is not clear to me how a civil union between two roommates, a brother and sister, or other non-married pairings to whom your proposal would grant licenses would benefit the state in the way that marriages do. In fact, it seems there would be a perverse incentive to find someone with whom one could obtain an arbitrary license in order to receive the benefits that are in no way valuable to the state granting the benefits.

    Now, since you don’t explicitly mention tax incentives, you may be thinking also that the state should get out of the business of incentivizing committed relationships altogether. I’m not sure many on either side of this debate would like to see that happen, however. There seems to be a clear social consensus that marriages are good for the state and should be incentivized. Speaking personally, and I’m sure you would agree in your own case, marriage has made me a much better person. I am a better citizen, a better son, a better philosophy professor, etc., because there is value in committed relationships that most of us believe make society better and, therefore, should be incentivized. Again, though, maybe I’m misunderstanding your proposal (and I sincerely apologize if that is the case). In my reading, you are facing two horns of a dilemma: either your proposal asks the state to grant benefits for which they receive no compensating return, or it removes an incentive for relationships for which many of us believe there is a great social return.

    Second, I don’t see how your proposal allays a primary concern of most who oppose same-sex marriage—viz. the concern that the concept of marriage does not and should not include anyone other than a man and a woman (who are not closely related). In your proposal, the concept of marriage can be rightly applied to any relationship deemed by a religious organization to be consistent with their respective traditions. This, however, stretches the concept of marriage far further than most proponents of same-sex marriage. Those who oppose same-sex marriage for the conceptual reason I mention would face, under your proposal, an even more radical redefinition of marriage than most proponents of same-sex marriage have suggested. Not only would many churches immediately begin to grant same-sex marriages, but many others would begin granting polygamous marriages. Under the auspices of some religion, one could grant marriages to all of the weird pairings many who oppose same-sex marriage have expressed concern (churches could marry brothers and sisters, humans and animals, etc.). Currently, the state restricts the definition of marriage to relationships between adults of the opposite sex who are not closely related. If same-sex marriages become recognized, just those will be added to the definition. Under your proposal, there is no restriction on the concept of marriage at all. I cannot imagine that this would appeal to the “conservative Christians” you address in this post.

    Third, I do not see the appeal your proposal has to those (like me) who support same-sex marriages. There is little doubt that there is a growing consensus in the US that (i) the concept of marriage can include same-sex couples and (ii) there should be state recognition of these kinds of marriages. You mention this as the status quo. Why would someone who supports same-sex marriage and sees that there is a growing consensus in their favor want to see a change that, from their perspective, would be completely arbitrary? In other words, I see that a new majority has emerged (and will continue to increase if demographic surveys can be trusted) that supports government recognition of same-sex marriage. Why would I want to see the government get out of the marriage business right when it is about to let it be applied to a group to whom I think it should be applied? One potential answer would be that I would accept the proposal to placate a minority opinion that opposes same-sex marriage. But, as I mention above, it is not clear that the proposal does placate most in this group.

    I take it that those who would support your proposal would do so because it takes marriage out of the hands of the government and makes it exclusively a religious practice. That ship has long sailed, though, hasn’t it? As you mention judges and ship captains marry people, and that hasn’t seemed to disturb most religious people. I haven’t encountered religious people who are decrying the fact that marriage isn’t exclusively under the purview of religion. I have encountered religious people, however, who decry the fact that same-sex couples can marry, and your proposal doesn’t do anything for that concern.

    One more point that isn’t directly related to your question: I would oppose your proposal for reasons unconnected to the issue of same-sex marriage. I am an atheist (a “friendly atheist” in the school of William Rowe and Paul Draper; I found your blog because I’m reading your book _Who Needs Theology?_ with my closest friend who is an evangelical pastor and a seminary student who was just assigned the book for a class, and I wanted to find out more about you). I love being married. I have been married since 1996, and my marriage has been the best thing that ever happened to me. I like the fact that I am “married” and not merely “civil-union-ized.” Why? Because I believe that marriage is not merely a religious practice. I believe that marriage evolved through human history and that, later, religions saw its value and adopted it. I want to be included in the human, not religious, practice of committing to someone I love, having friends and family show their support for my commitment through celebrating my wedding and anniversaries, having my government recognize that my marriage makes me a better citizen and better person all around. I wouldn’t want to have my marriage redefined as either something religious or taken away altogether and replaced with something else.

    As I mentioned at the outset, I’m not sure I can identify a group to which your proposal would appeal. I don’t see that it addresses the primary concern of those who oppose same-sex marriage. I don’t see why someone who supports same-sex marriage would want to see it enacted. As an atheist, I would not want to see marriage exclusively in the hands of the religious. I can only see your proposal appeal to those who just want to say that “marriage” is exclusively a religious concept. Again, though, I may have missed something important. My sincere apologies if I have.

    I hope I have responded in the spirit you requested. [I also apologize, because I do not have time to proofread what I just wrote; I really didn’t even have time to write it either! 😉 I’m not a blogger, so I don’t know that I’ll have much time to respond to anything either, so sorry for that too.]

    • rogereolson

      And I don’t have time to answer every point although I’m confident there are answers to each. To whom might my proposal appeal? Well, why is it the status quo in many countries? Obviously it appeals to someone, somewhere. It’s a compromise and like all compromises will hopefully appeal to moderates who want peace between hostile parties. Hopefully it will appeal to conservative Christians who are fighting even civil unions for gays. Hopefully it will appeal to gays who want to be married because marriage (as currently defined in most states) brings certain civil benefits.

  • Pam

    I like your ideas. I know older people who dislike living together without marriage, but would suffer financially if they did marry. (we are talking here about people with finances on the edge already) This would allow them to marry. My question to you: Is this idea being tossed around in Washington currently?

    • rogereolson

      If so, I’m not aware of it.

  • Rob

    Why are civil unions limited to two people? If this is not about marriage, why could not three people enter into a civil union together?

    • rogereolson

      For purely pragmatic reasons. Sharing property, tax benefits, ability to make decisions for another person–all would suffer if more than two people are in a civil union. For example, if three people had a civil union and one of them fell into a coma and he or she needed someone to make a life or death decision and the two other partners disagree–who would break the stalemate?

      • Rob

        How is that any different from two parents making a medical decision for a child?

        • rogereolson

          Okay, good point. I’ll have to consider that. But my proposal is a compromise; it keeps the “only two” rule which is something most GLBT people want, too. The same argument (that you are making) could be and is sometimes raised about government recognized “marriage” (which is really just a civil union only limited to heterosexuals or people who can pretend to be). Why only two? Do you really think it’s for religious reasons? Is it a case of government supporting religion? Don’t you think and hope that a secular reason can be given for it? I do.

          • Rob

            I think marriage is something natural–no space to elaborate. I do not see marriage as religious–it can occur successfully apart from religion (where religion is narrowly-construed). This does not mean that religious people should not get married under the terms of their faith community. Death is also quite natural and occurs apart from religion but the death of a religious person should be recognized under the terms of that person’s faith community.
            Government has a reason to recognize marriage (or other forms of domestic partnership) and so I think it is good that we do recognize marriage. I am open to the idea of recognizing other sorts of domestic partnerships. These sorts of partnerships (like marriage) happen, and so the government may see an interest in recognizing them.

  • I still don’t think this would solve the issue, Dr. Olsen.

    While it is a step in the right direction, the issue that this centers on is – in my experience, at least – less about governmental benefits and more about equality. The distinction between civil union and marriage still communicates one standard for group A and another for group B. Even if LGBT partners are granted a civil union, restricting their ability to have a “marriage” diminishes their relationship as an inferior arrangement.

    By point of comparison, during periods of segregation, you would have one drinking fountain for white folks and another for black folks. Even if the two drinking fountains were to be of equal quality, the distinction and separation still shatters the equality between the two groups. Whether this is the case in regards to same sex marriage or not, I’m fairly certain that the LGBT community would see it this way.

    So, then, the issue still comes back to the definition of marriage and whether same sex marriage can be seen as equally legitimate as heterosexual marriage. Civil unions may address a functional issue, but it still fails to address the perception of inequality.

    • rogereolson

      Did you (or others who have raised similar objections) even read my whole proposal? I can’t believe it. Go back and read what I suggested about marriage. In my proposal anyone can get married; it’s just a matter of finding a church or judge or ship’s captain or whatever….

  • bubbleowner

    Totally agree.

  • JD

    As you’ve said your proposal is in fact the case in some countries and works well. It is sensible and pragmatic. Unfortunately whenever I have suggested it I have still been vilified as a mean bigot. I worry that by failing to allow any private expression of marriage, it becomes entirely a tool of the state, and in the end a tedious piece of bureaucracy. Here in Britain we do have civil partnerships for gay couples, but this has not stopped the demand for gay marriage. So a gay marriage bill was passed. I always thought the more sensible option would have been to open up civil unions to everyone and leave marriage separate.

  • Your proposal makes perfect sense and I say that as a Christian who is gay. But as someone pointed out this fight is not about commonsense or fairness. There is a vendetta being played out between the extremist on both sides and they are holding the moderate minds hostage to their bitterness against each other.

  • kenneth

    Your proposal is eminently sensible, and therefore won’t satisfy anyone in this hideous culture war. You recognize a fact that has existed since day one in our republic. There is no state marriage. Marriage is a religious sacrament, and therefore all government has EVER granted is civil union. LGBT folks are not willing to take that term exclusive to them, because it is a second class form of legal protection. I think it would be perfectly acceptable if everyone conceded that all they have is civil union, and that civil unions are absolutely equal for straight or gay couples.

    • rogereolson

      Agreed except I’d add in the last line after “all they have is civil union” “in the eyes of the government.”

  • Anita

    I’ve thought this for several years . If you really want equal rights then sex should not come into the discussion. Neither gender nor activity… I see too many older folks who are penalized by the same laws that are currently under discussion. Why shouldn’t 2 friends who have been widowed or never found that “person” have the same benefits?

  • K Gray

    The proposal would certainly hasten the elimination of gender as a recognized concept.

    • rogereolson

      In what ways should the government recognize gender? Right now it favors females in health matters. Title IX was passed to help females, not males, and is never used to defend the rights of males. Abused males get laughed at when they seek help from government agencies. I’m not convinced government recognition of gender has always been fair or balanced.

      • K Gray

        I agree the focus has been on women, and is probably not balanced but instead a result of women’s role in pregnancy and birth, as well as efforts to equalize opportunities and outcomes (using logic, but not always sense). Some of this has gone awry or overboard, that’s for sure.

        What I meant: the inflexible logic/equality train of “genders are unfair” or “genders don’t differ” is leaving the station as, for example, some marriage and birth certificates reflect “partner A” and “partner B” (who wants to be “B?” that’s not fair or equal! j/k). Another example is Judge Walker in the Prop 8 case finding as a FACT that there is no difference in genders for purposes of parenting. Thus he reasoned that the state can have no rational interest in promoting male-female marriage, and since there is no reasonable state interest in such a law, that law — which Cal. voters passed — must be based only on prejudice and religious bigotry, and must be struck down. Inexorable.

        His logic error, IMO, is “Genders are equal = genders are the same.” But that’s where we are headed. I think a significant side effect of replacing marriage with civil unions as the public norm would be to quickly move us toward that norm. God created them male and female will be irrational religious bigotry.

        • rogereolson

          I can see the two issues–civil unions and parenting–being separated and I would advocate that. As you know if you have read my blog very long (and I know you have) I am a passionate advocate of children being raised by a man and a woman–even when the “legal parent” is one gender. In other words, it is the responsibility of a man raising a child to try to have a significant female in his or her life and a woman raising a child should try to have a significant male in the child’s life.

  • John

    Mr. Olson,

    I would not support your proposal, marriage has a moral code attached to it, to remove the moral code or to make it subjective would render it meaningless which your proposal would do by making it a “private matter”, of course this same proposal would never be supported in other legal matters the government has interest in, murder, stealing, etc

    • rogereolson

      But it has done that with regard to baptism and ordination which also have moral codes attached to them.

  • Amanda F

    I like this proposal a lot. I think several who are calling civil unions “second class” in this proposal are not taking the time to see that all current marriages would be rendered civil unions in the eyes of the government. Whether or not you have a church (or non church) sanctioned marriage would be a matter entirely between yourselves and your church (or other entity.) You may be so called “second class” if you join a church and they don’t recognize your civil union as a marriage, but it would hold no weight in the eyes of the law. Government would no longer recognize the term marriage just as they wouldn’t officially recognize that you are a Baptist.
    As a single person, I also like this for practical reasons. My only question is about adoption. Two friend adoptions? Can this be done anywhere already? I’m not even sure I’d be opposed to that (especially special needs, older kids, foster kids, etc) but it’s an interesting question.

    • rogereolson

      Single people can adopt, so why not two friends?

  • R. Kelly Johnson

    I haven’t read all the responses to this because there are too many, so if this is a repeat, sorry! Doc, you keep saying that you are starting with the status quo, but it seems like you are not taking into account the resolve of the homosexual rights activists people. These guys have no intention of making compromise. They feel that, right now, they have the Church by the short hairs. As you’ve already pointed out, if they want to get married, they can do that now. So what is their point to pursue this gay rights agenda? They do not want anybody to have the right to refuse them. They are not interested in churches being free to refuse. They want those freedoms taken, and all churches forced to recognize, legitimize, and in all ways accept them as being normal and a normal part of the chruch and society. I understand you have had agreeable responses from ‘reasonable’ members of the homosexual community, but they are not the ones driving the agenda. So, they already have what they want: marriage, recognized in several states, and places calling themselves a church. Yet, they will not stop pushing social reform.
    I believe your proposal can only work in a framework where all parties are reasonable, and logical. However, this is not a logical world. In a logical world, if the homosexual community believed that God made them that way, and since same-sex unions cannot produce children, then they must conclude that God does not what them to have children. That, as you know, is far from the case.
    I oppose legalizing gay marriages rights, not based on the fact that the Bible is clear on the sinfulness of homosexuality. My oppsition is based on the obvious goal of stripping the church of her rights to say no, and the goal of the redefinition of marriage. That is their goal, and they will reject your proposal because it takes the prize from them.

    • rogereolson

      I find interesting that so many people object to my proposal by simply arguing that others won’t accept it. If fear that extremists won’t accept a compromise proposal stopped all people from proposing compromises, then there would never be any.

  • Curious, I have suggested nearly the same exact thing. Re-centre the conversation. Make it a truly relational and spiritual discussion rather than a legislative question.

  • TimN


    I think your proposal has some sense, but I think it misses the key points.

    Firstly IMHO marriage law is not really about children, sanctified unity or anything else. It’s roots (at least in Western society) are about property law. The reason you can’t marry your brother or your niece is not because it’s immoral but because (particularly in primogeniture based systems), you get to bypass inheritance rules in relation to feudal obligations or inheritance taxes. The same is still true today – create a vehicle for tax avoidance (particularly if you have a religious alternative), and we’ll “civil union” wealth through the generations without the government getting close. The truth is we have a bunch of rules relating to who can/can’t get stuff and others about fair division, and they all revolve around the concept of “Marriage”. For those who cross borders, there are also lots of legalities that also relate to Marriage that Civil Partnerships don’t cover. The divide can also have issues in relation to communities where polygamy is acceptable, where “religious marriage” is used to create a situation where women are left in potential highly exploitable positions.

    The second problem is that (at least here in the UK) what we are trying to hold onto is a word that differentiates what God is about, from any other kind of pair based relationship. The problem is that we’ve lost the fight. From the time of Civil Partnerships, gay people generally referred to themselves as married (otherwise the answer to the casual question “Are you married” has to become – no I’m in a Civil Partnership, which may be way too much information to share with someone you met 5 minutes ago). So the culture already accepts Marriage to be a defined as a state-sanctioned partnership, not a church defined relationship. I can see that the US is further behind on this, but it’s moving rapidly in the European direction.

    If we truly want to follow Christ, then I believe we cannot dictate to the world, and we need to accept that we need our own terminology. I think you may be right in terms of splitting the two functions, but we need to take the path of Sacrifice, and give up “Marriage” to the world, and create our own “Sanctified Union”. What I see is a fight over a dictionary definition that is severely damaging the witness of the church. Let’s move on and demonstrate and teach what real christian union is about

    • rogereolson

      Here I think the cultural-historical-legal differences between the UK and the US come into play. We (US) have a much stronger tradition of church-state separation and it is that upon which I am building with my proposal which is for the U.S. only. Other countries will have to work it out their own ways. Here, in the U.S., it seems to me, relegating “marriage” to religious organizations (although anyone can call themselves “married”) and “civil unions” to government is the natural extension of church-state separation. Here, in the U.S., anyway, “marriage” pre-dates government legislation about common property, etc. Part of that has to do with our frontier experience where for many years people lived without complete legislation or government authority and abided by tradition which was often set by various denominations. “Marriage licenses” are relatively new compared with what we would no call common law marriages or church marriages. Governments began to intrude into marriage law in order to keep certain people from marrying. I believe it was then that government here should have called it “civil union” rather than marriages which was generally thought of as a religious union.

  • Billy Boylston

    I am same-gender-oriented male. I do not even like using the word “gay” as it has become really, a political party more than accurate description of a huge number of human beings. I do NOT support “gay marriage”, believing it is a Holy rite. Civil Union (okay, let’s call it ‘matrimonization’ in the legal Latin) is enough to cover the human/legal rights aspect of same-gender couples being united as life partners. I believe in The Holy Trinity, I humbly follow Christ in my human conditions- that we all have. All sinners. Our churches are empty because of so many judgements of others beyond *their fellow sinners*. Whose sin is worse? Whose is not forgiveable by one who came not to condemn, but to save? Let our churches be hospitals for sinners, not museums of saints. I will never attempt to change God’s word to fit me in this life, only that He help me fit His Will, that I might be in the next, forever.