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On Gay Marriage and Civil Unions

The Supreme Court of the United States has heard both sides of the argument regarding whether the institution of mariage should be extended to same-sex couples. The big question before them is ultimately whether marriage is a civil right. When civil rights were guaranteed for Americans based on their race, the idea of “separate but equal” was thrown out the window. But now, we see it rise again. Only this time, it isn’t a matter of separate drinking fountains for blacks and whites. It’s now a split between civil unions and marriage.

A fair question has arisen amidst this: what if civil unions gave homosexual couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples? What I love about this question is that it reveals that there is a distinct problem with how our system has framed the question. The issue is that there are generally two parts to a marriage.  On part is secular, with all the civil benefits that come with the status. The other is religious. Why in the world is there a religious component tacked onto something that grants civil status? In a nation that separates church and state, this should simply not be the case.

As a minister, whenever I perform a marriage, I do so as an agent of the state. I am not just performing a religious function, but a legal one. Back in seminary (graduated 2003), I began arguing that clergy should not be involved in the business of weddings. Rather, we should only perform holy unions, regardless of whether the couple was homo- or heterosexual. Once I landed in a parish, however, I realized that pursuing this solution would only cause distress to couples who asked me to marry them. As a solution, it was unfair to them. They didn’t understand where I was coming from, and they didn’t do anything wrong. Why punish them for simply wanting to get married? So I entered the business of performing weddings.

We have a religious component entwined so tightly to the concept of marriage that it is difficult to separate the two. We currently have holy unions (church blessing services with no rights), civil unions (which grant couples legal status at the state level), and marriages (which are basically a combination of the two on a national level). The solution that we could just extend a civil union to same-sex couples isn’t the same as allowing them to marry. But what if we were to completely separate the church and state elements out of the institution of marriage?

I believe that our best option is to get rid of marriage altogether as we know it. Instead, we could have civil unions and holy unions, and that we allow the term “marriage” to apply to both. Equal civil rights could then be extended to all Americans. Meanwhile, whether a religious institution will perform the holy union will be up to them. This gives all Americans the option to do both or either. This also moves the religious questions regarding marriage (such as should same-sex couples be blessed, or should clergy be functioning as an agent of the state) where they belong: in the various religious institutions. This seems to me to be the most just answer.

This is an excellent example of how a divisive situation can arise from asking the wrong questions. Unfortunately, it also exposes how the previous framing of a question locks out creative solutions. As the Supreme Court wrestles with the issue, I don’t believe that they could even come up with such a just solution, because they would never be able to declare marriage–as a union of church and state–to be an unconstitutional institution. It simply wouldn’t fly. So, as I seek to speak for justice, I support gays and lesbians in their quest for legal equality according to the best option currently available.
Image source: Human Rights Campaign.