I knew it would happen–that somehow the issue of “same-sex marriage” would push front and center into the politics of our nation leading up to November’s elections. For the last 20 years, this issue pops up before elections as predictably as dandelions in my front yard, assuring an energized turnout from the religious segment of the Republican base.
I confess. I have mixed feelings about the dispute centered on “same-sex” marriage. That’s probably a dangerous thing to say in relation to such a polarizing matter. Neither side wants to see this as anything other than good versus evil. Let me explain.
Certainly I support full civil and human rights for all people without exception. That is not the cause of my mixed feelings. My concerns focus on the question of marriage itself as it is practiced in the USA. If we simply open up marriage as it is currently practiced to any couple that desires it, that is in one sense a “step forward.” But in doing so we miss an opportunity to make needed and necessary changes in our current practices that would be beneficial on a number of different fronts.
Most specifically, our current marriage practices perpetuate a problem in the relationship between church and state that could be easily remedied, and the by-product of that remedy would also totally solve the problem of same-sex marriage. Presently, ordained clergy have state sanction to declare a couple legally married. Regardless of the justification this had historically, it is no longer justified. Furthermore, since this practice essentially turns every ordained minister into an ad hoc administrator for the state, a good case could be made against it on Constitutional grounds.
There are two aspects of marriage that should be conceptually separate, but which get too easily confused because of our current practices. These are the LEGAL aspect, which pertains to rights, responsibilities and privileges under the law, and the HOLY aspect, which can only be conferred by the blessings of a community, and in which the state has no place and must remain neutral. Much of the rancor related to same-sex marriage, rancor that divides our nation right down the middle, is a direct result of practices that seamlessly align these two very different aspects of marriage. One side feels that to deny same-sex partnership its recognized legal status is clearly discriminatory. The other side objects that were the state to sanction same-sex marriage, they would be forced by the state to recognize as holy that which their interpretation of true religion tells them is not holy, a clear intrusion of the state into their religion.
I would like to see the sanction to declare a couple legally married withdrawn from religious clergy and placed completely in the hands of secular state administrators, such as Justices of the Peace. It should be clear that marriage as a LEGAL status emanates from the state. Those desiring to enter into the legal status of marriage would go to a designated secular official of the state, declare their intentions, and have this legal status bestowed on them by the state official. Those who want to enter into HOLY matrimony, receiving the blessings of their chosen community for their union, would go to the official designated by that community for this purpose, for whatever ceremony is in keeping with the customs of that community.
In short, I would like to see “civil unions” for all couples, regardless of sexual orientation, as the recognized legal status for a couple, conferring upon all who enter into it with the same legal rights, responsibilities and privileges. Conferring this legal status is what the state is fit to do.
Those desiring to have their union recognized by their chosen religious community as a condition of Holy Matrimony are then free to pursue that within their chosen religious community, in addition to the civil declaration, or for that matter without the civil declaration (though they would then not enjoy the legal status of union.) While this might seem radical to Americans (and no doubt many of the professional clergy would resist having their marriage-declaration powers withdrawn) it is the standard practice in many nations today.
This approach completely solves the same-sex marriage dispute that is dividing our nation, because it dissolves the religious aspect of legal marriage. It is clearly in better keeping with the non-establishment clause of the Constitution, because it does not even temporarily put religious clergy into the position of being clerk for the state. Each religious community would be free to decide for themselves what unions they want to bless, and how to bless them with whomever designated to officiate, without overtones of legal discrimination for their customs. Whether a given religious community chooses to bless or not bless any particular union would be of no interest to the state, as indeed it should not be. Those belonging to communities that refuse to bless some unions as holy would still be expected to respect the legal nature of the civil unions of fellow citizens outside their communities, and would have no reason to feel threatened by doing so.
My hope has been that the issue of same-sex marriage would spark a much wider critical examination of current marriage practices in the USA. I fear that the current headlong rush into solidified positions on same-sex marriage, hammered out in the context of power politics and the coming election, will actually hinder the process of real critical examination of current marriage practices. Discussions quickly devolve into a bifurcated pattern of “for it” or “against it,” but “how might we agree to do this thing differently” remains off the table. Clearly a missed opportunity. That is why my feelings are mixed.