On Same-Sex Unions, the Definition of Marriage,
and the Traditional Church in a Mixed Democracy
(or an idea for possible legislation)
I write this as I am not entirely comfortable with how both sides of this issue seem to be pushing for “all or nothing” legislation, that is, squeezing the government into defining marriage to definitely include or exclude same-sex couples. This puts the government in the job of codifying marriage, which many people feel is at least partially a religious institution. I would like to propose a compromise(1) as follows: That states do not process or define marriages for any couples at all. Instead, states issue or deny civil unions, but not marriages, to whatever couples they deem fit, opposite or same-sex, to fulfill civil law.(2) Churches in turn would be granted complete freedom to perform or deny marriage ceremonies, but not legal civil unions, to whomever they deem fit, to fulfill the law of God. Definition of marriage would be left to individual couples. Thus the states process secular legal contracts, as is their job, and the church processes religious ceremonies, as is their job. This idea will first be discussed in more detail, then the merits of the idea discussed from various viewpoints.
The proposal in more detail
The way in which we handle marriages in the US is somewhat unique in our society, in that the church serves as an agent of the state in performing marriages, and the state acts as an agent of church law in legalizing these marriages. The first half of this is, I think, fairly clear: the pastor signs off on the legal marriage document, as an agent of the state, after presiding over the vows. The second part is a little less clear, so I would like to provide an example: Let us say a heterosexual couple marries with a religious ceremony, yet is unwilling to get a state marriage license, and thus assume legal responsibility for each other under secular law. Most of the traditional churches(3) would consider this couple to be living in the sin of fornication. In this, the state legalization of the marriage, in practice, forms part of the church's law concerning marriage.
At such a time as there existed a consensus between the church and the individual states as to the definition of marriage, this symbiotic system worked well. This situation no longer exists. On the issue of the marrying same-sex couples, the opinion of general population is currently more or less evenly split.(4) The American Christian church as a whole (not just the traditional church) sits at about 75/25 against.(5) If you take 75% of the 67% of Americans that list themselves as Christian, you more or less get the 50% of the total US population that is opposed. This cannot be defined as a consensus.
So long as the state's laws concerning marriage are connected with church law, the traditional church (myself included) will remain vehemently opposed to anything called "gay marriage." However, under the current system, the only thing truly equal to heterosexual marriage which the states may offer same-sex couples is "gay marriage." Legalizing “gay marriage” is a “definition of marriage” measure, just as much as California's Proposition 8, it just defines it differently. In my opinion, the use or misuse of the religious term “marriage” by the government is one of the primary concern of the traditional church. Given the current division of opinion in America the I do not feel that it is rational that state should be defining what marriage is. It is not their job.
Let us now suppose that the states could get entirely out of the marriage business. States would no longer record marriages for anyone, be they opposite or same-sex. They would only file civil unions, which would be legally identical to the agreement currently called "marriage." Secular minded couples could simply file the unions, and go about their lives, with no further ceremony necessary. The term "marriage" would be stricken from all the states legal documents, and cease to have any legal significance, being replaced with the term "union." (Or whatever term they want to come up with, so long as it is not "marriage.") The term “marriage” would be left to individuals or churches to use or withhold as they pleased. Additional ceremonies could be preformed or omitted as each couple's conscience desires. Clergy or secular officials would not be obligated to perform ceremonies that might offend their respective consciences.
If this were done, I personally could accept state law granting civil unions to same-sex couples, not that I agree with it morally, but I think it is rational given the mixed consensus of our democracy. I think that many of the members of the traditional church would agree with me on this. That remains to be seen. Part of why I am writing this it to see what sentiment towards this idea is, from both sides of the issue.
How a couple of any orientation, with or without a legal civil union, chose to define themselves would be up to them. Marriage would no longer be a legal term, and though most churches consider it a religious term, anyone would be free to use the term as they wished on a social level, including changing names, introducing their partner as wife or husband, or the like. Not everyone could be expected to agree with all other individuals on their way of defining their respective relationships, but they could define their own relationships as they please. Thus the definition of marriage would be left to individuals and and private organizations such as churches, not mandated (one way or the other) by the state.
As far as how this would be implemented, I propose (ideally) that the federal government define that the states could only grant civil unions, not marriages, and that the church would no longer be part of the legal process. Whether or not these unions should include same-sex couples wouldl be left to the individual states.
Discussion pertaining to the gay rights lobby
The proposed state civil unions would offer complete equality of same-sex couples and mixed sex couples under the law. No two tier system, marriage and "skim milk marriage" as US Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg put it.(6)
With a clearer definition of secular and religious domains, and the removal of the disputed term "marriage," I do not think it would be as easy to get support for of blanket "definition of marriage" legislature such as California's Proposition 8. There are some USA Today/Gallup and CBS News Polls (unfortunately only with data from 2010 and before) which give four options in their poll: "gay marriage," civil unions, no recognition, and undecided/no response. I think this is a much better organization for a poll than than a simple yes or no on “gay marriage” Proposition 8 was passed (I think) with a coalition of the some of the “civil unions” group and the “no recognition” group. I myself would have voted for it, had I lived there. If the state is going to define marriage, I would prefer that they do it in accordance with my values. However, if given a situation where the the religious term “marriage” was not being legislated, some of the “civil union” group could swing towards this proposed compromise. I myself would, and I think others would as well.
Under this idea, same-sex couples desiring a religious marriage would proceed in exactly the same manner as mixed sex couples: a couple finds a church/pastor that they are comfortable with, and that is comfortable with them, and they get married. Obviously some churches could be expected to say no. It should be noted that many churches say no to some traditional heterosexual couples if they do not meet certain criteria. As long as there is some percentage of gays in America, there will be some churches that will perform religious marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples.
Discussion pertaining for the traditional church
I would like to consider the path by which most people are converted, in a valid and lasting manner, to Christianity (to be very specific, Christianity as defined by the traditional church, as defined in (2)). A person generally comes first to an appreciation of the love of God, which comes from the inside, that is to say, from the heart. This is often influenced by observation of Christian's lives, circumstances in ones own life, and/or even divine intervention. I wish to emphasize that this change comes from an inside pressure. We do not often hear of many lasting conversions caused by outside pressure. Furthermore, the least effective sort of outside pressure is that that comes from the government.
Though it is the center of one of the court cases, I myself am not that concerned about property rights for same-sex couples, and I do not think most of the traditional church is either. Compared to the state misuse of the religious term "marriage," this is a minor issue.
What about adoption and child custody? My faith teaches that children were intended to have a male father and a female mother, and that same-sex parents are not an equally valid option, but I cannot come up with a way to put this into civil law without creating invasions of privacy and freedom that I cannot support. Let me give an example: Suppose that my idea is codified into law exactly as I have described, save that same-sex couples may not adopt children. A certain lesbian couple decides that they want children, so they decide that they will not seek a legal union, but rather stay registered as single. They tell the state that they are both straight, single roommates. How is the state to define whether or not this is true? By videotaping them cuddling at the movies? Because one of them has a crew cut? I for one do not think the state should carry out any investigations of this sort. In practice, within today's society, whatever the various extant state adoption and custody laws, there are thousands of same-sex couples raising children. I imagine that even in states that have some laws restricting adoption by same-sex couples, that these laws are extremely difficult to enforce, because of scenarios such as was discussed above.
I do not think that the idea I have proposed would radically change the way society functions now. Some would argue that in allowing same-sex unions, the state is officially sanctioning immoral behavior, and this to some extent encouraging it. I would contest that the state policy at this time, and on this issue, is would not be doing much to influence public sentiment one way or the other. Certain states have already legalized some kind of same-sex unions, or "gay marriages". Millions of Americans live in same-sex romantic relationships. I do not see this as changing opinion radically either within the church nor in the population as a whole.
There are some other current legal disputes which stand to change society more radically and deserve more of the traditional church's attention, concerning definitions of discrimination, free speech, hate speech, and religious freedom as it applies to the relations between the gay/lesbian population and the traditional church and its adherents, but discussion of this I will save for another essay. However, if some reasonably rational and amicable compromise could be reached on same-sex unions more time could be devoted to these more important issues.
Finally, given the current composition of opinions of the U.S today, it is not perhaps in good conscience for the traditional church to continue to work so closely with the government in the matter of marriage. We should separate our job and the states job.
Discussion from both points of view
Most of us on both sides of this issue do not hate each other. Obviously some on both sides do, but I feel this is a smallish minority. We certainly disagree sincerely. I think that we both fear the radical elements of the opposing side. Animosity makes us both look bad. I think that many individuals on both sides live under the illusion that their viewpoint is that held by a large majority of Americans. This is partly because one cannot judge national sentiment by ones own peer group or neighborhood. This is one cause for the “all or nothing” nature of current proposed legislation. I do not think this is either rational or fair given the more or less even split of public opinion. Some individuals on both sides also seem to think that if we could but change (or maintain) legislation to reflect one side of the other, society as a whole will follow the government to our point of view. This is also a fallacy. An individual's convictions are not easily changed. We are in all likelihood going live with a serious difference of opinion this issue in America for the foreseeable future. We both want to win the hearts of the other side, from the inside out. I feel that this proposal is a reasonably amicable way of handling the issue. Some obviously will not agree. In particular it would allow churches on both sides of this issue to continue to function according to their respective consciences, without trying to drag the entire government over to their side.
The "definition of marriage" and "gay marriage" acts have generally passed by small margins, or have been “legislated” by court justices. Passing sweeping and very controversial legislation by small margins or judicial fiat leaves a very discontent often hostile losing side.(7) In order for legislation to be at least fairly lasting, a solution needs to be found that can pass by 75/25 instead of 53/47(8).
We both benefit from an America where both majority and minority viewpoints are treated with respect. Whether ones side is winning or losing, it does not benefit us to move America to set a precedent of showing favoritism to anyone just because they are the currently in or out of favor with the media, a certain subculture, or the party holding a congressional majority. If one does set such a precedent while one is winning, the day may come (though it may be decades away, and though it may be hard to imagine) when one is not the favorite, and this same precedent of favoritism will be used against them.
If you think this is an interesting idea, please share this essay with people that you think may be interested, particularly legislators and their staffs.
by Hawke Morgan, Albuquerque, NM, (10th Revision, 2-24-14)
(1) I propose a compromise under the premise that people that I disagree should be treated with respect. I would like to be very clear however, that in proposing such a compromise, I would not wish to encourage any person who is currently considering the morality of the gay lifestyle to chose that path for themselves. I believe that God created our bodies and minds, and set guidelines for how they should be used, not to make us miserable, but because he loves us, and He understands them better than we ourselves do. According to my understanding of the Christian Faith, homosexual and lesbian intimacy fall outside of these guidelines in all circumstances. Obviously many of my fellow Americans disagree with this, and they are, and should be, free to do so.
(2) Civil law is defined in this essay as the law of the state as apposed to the law of the church.
(3) The term term "traditional church" is used, for lack of a better term, to mean "churches who believe that homosexuality is a sin," that is to say, traditional as it related to this issue only.
(4) I found many of polls on this issue, with various phrasings. Most of the polls were conducted by news organizations that I would consider having a bias in favor of same-sex marriages. These average about a 7% margin "for." There is a pretty good composite article on Wikipedia.
_in_the_United_States (accessed 4-16-13)
The CBS News and USA Today/Gallup polls use the “gay marriage,” civil unions, no recognition, unsure format. In looking at these, if you suppose that the civil unions group is against “gay marriage,” which seems logical, and you combine it with the no recognition group (using the CBS August 20–24, 2010 data) you get 55/40 against.
There is another Gallup poll of 5-3-12 which shows public opinion at 50/48 "for." http://www.gallup.com/poll/154529/Half-Americans-Support-Legal-
Gay-Marriage.aspx (accessed 4-16-13)
(5) This was calculated by using the data from
http://www.adherents.com/rel_USA.html. (accessed 4-16-13)
These are pretty close to the Pew Forum numbers which can be seen at
http://religions.pewforum.org/reports#. (accessed 4-16-13)
I added the percentages from the denominations officially for and against same-sex marriage. By this method I get ~85/15 against.
Information on many major groups' stances can be found here
positions_on_homosexuality (accessed 4-16-13)
However, certain denominations have, in my observation, large numbers of members who disagree with their own denomination, particularly the Catholics and Methodists. Also, the Lutherans and Presbyterians are split into factions over this (and other) issues. So I made a second table splitting some of the larger denominations. I am a bit of a student of the American church and I feel that the numbers I used are decent “educated guesses”. My “guess numbers” came out to ~65/35 against. I averaged the two and got ~75/25 against, which is the number I used for this essay. If you want to have a look a the math, I can provide you with my spreadsheet.
(7) Obamacare is a good example of this.
(8) Percentages from California's Proposition 8.
A digital copy of this essay in a .doc format is available here.