A radical idea perhaps—and a bit of a break from the usual fare of this blog— but it’s been on my mind today, and it might just solve the same-sex marriage controversy. What I would propose is as follows:
Civil marriage would be replaced by civil unions. In the case of already existing civil marriages, civil unions, and domestic partnerships, these would be converted into civil unions dated retroactively to the date of the marriage license. Anyone married in a church would of course still be considered married. Those married in civil ceremonies could still, of course, call themselves married.
In the case of new civil unions, the couple entering into said union would have three options:
1) Civil Union with a civil ceremony. The equivalent of civil marriage/civil union/domestic partnership with a ceremony presided over by a public official. Nothing changes except the name.
2) Civil Union with marriage ceremony. In this case, it would be up to the religious community to decide who could or couldn’t get married. The civil union wouldn’t require a separate civil ceremony, as the witnesses could sign the civil union license along with the presiding minister who would legally serve as a stand-in for the public official.
3) Civil Union with “no official ceremony.” A civil union, like a civil marriage, is essentially a contract. Most contracts are signed with witnesses but without ceremony. Why should a civil union be different? In this case, the couple could either forgo a ceremony altogether or construct their own. As a side benefit, so-called internet ordinations would become unnecessary.
What does this accomplish?
Separation of church and state: civil marriage has always blurred this line and liberal divorce laws have left the so-called sanctity of marriage all but worthless. The “quickie marriage” in Vegas, followed by a “quickie divorce” in Reno, has made a mockery of the institution, and the damage already done by these frivolous unions exceeds the worst nightmares of gay marriage opponents.
Defense of “traditional” marriage: By making marriage solely a religious ceremony, marriage will, with rare exception, remain between one man and one woman. Granted, some religious denominations will perform same-sex unions (some already do, they’re just not legally recognized—a First Amendment time bomb), but these will remain a small minority for the foreseeable future.
The “separate but equal” charge is eliminated: The biggest, and most valid, argument made against civil unions by gay rights supporters is that it creates a “lesser marriage” for gays only. However, if every couple applies for the same civil union, this charge no longer holds.
The danger of lawsuits are greatly diminished if not outright eliminated: The fear is this—if same-sex marriage is made legal then inevitably a church will be sued for refusing to celebrate one. While I find this to be a specious argument given existing First Amendment protections, frivolous lawsuits are sometimes brought before courts. By making all unions civil unions, an already weak argument becomes a ridiculous one.
A group of Americans are no longer second class citizens: This is the sticking point for me. It’s why I support civil unions, and why a majority of Americans—including many uncomfortable with “gay marriage”—support civil unions as well. As Americans we value fairness, and fairness will eventually win out.