As the United States Supreme Court hears arguments on the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, its steps have swarmed with advocates and opponents of gay marriage. Amid a sea of rainbow flags and scripture-scribbled placards, supporters of marriage equality and Bible-thumping traditionalists are battling over the defining social issue of our time: how our government will define marriage. However, both sides are asking the wrong question. The real problem is why our government is defining marriage, heterosexual or homosexual, to begin with.
To put it shortly: The government shouldn’t be recognizing the marriage of any couple. The institution of marriage, and its definition, is a deeply personal issue. The statue should have no authority determining this intimate relationship. Let’s get the government out of marriage, and limit its reach to what is appropriate: enforcing civil unions.
In the context of the gay marriage debate, “civil unions” most often denotes granting a same-sex couple the legal benefits of marriage while denying to recognize their union as such. But both same-sex and heterosexual couples should not need our secular government to recognize their union as marriage. They should each receive civil unions with identical privileges and obligations from the government, and define their union in a way that is appropriate and personal to them.
Inappropriate recognitions of marriage by a state separated from church is precisely what dragged us into our present social quagmire. Religious traditionalists impose their morality on consenting adults trying to enter legal unions that do not affect them. Conversely, secular advocates for same-sex marriage find themselves arguing with the morality and message of a religious tradition they do not observe.
A government recognition of marriage fails to separate marriage as a religious conception and marriage as an interpersonal contract acknowledged by the state. As the religious traditionalists argue, our societal concept of marriage originated from Judeo-Christian tradition. The biblical definition of marriage gives us Adam and Eve, but it doesn’t include tax exemptions for health insurance contributions or tax credits for children. If traditionalists want our government to only recognize the biblical definition of marriage, they should also renounce its modern, civil privileges.
Legally recognized marriages come stuffed with these privileges. According to the Human Rights Campaign, there are 1,318 federal benefits, rights, and and protections granted by marital
status. That’s not even counting state benefits. It also comes with power of attorney, co-ownership, the ability to make wills, and obligations like alimony.
The government must trim those civil privileges from marriage, and recognize them exclusively as benefits of civil unions. Under this model, the civil privileges and government recognition is available to all citizens entering a civil union, regardless of sex or religious affiliation. It is up to the individuals entering the civil union to determine whether it will be sanctified
as a marriage by their church or temple in a religious ceremony, or in the eyes of their own union or friends and family, or not use the “m-word” at all. It’s not a government issue what beliefs a church or individuals hold about marriage, just that its legal benefits and obligations are protected and enforced.
Because the government does not decree what a civil union must be considered, no religious person would be forced to recognize one as a religious union, and secular individuals would not have the definition of a religious union imposed on their own. Equal civil privileges would belong to all without mandating what definition of marriage anyone else must accept.
In an ideal world, the government would recognize the inappropriate breach in personal and religious beliefs caused by regulating marriage. But until the government can separate the privileges of civil unions from the personal concept of marriage, equal marriage rights should apply to all.