Did anyone catch Newsweek's cover story on gay marriage this week? In her article, "Our Mutual Joy," Lisa Miller offers "the religious case for gay marriage." Though the article lacks much nuance or exegetical rigor—where, for example, is her discussion of the marriage analogy of Christ and his Church?—, it does raise some interesting points that should be taken seriously.
For example, Miller writes:
"Marriage" in America refers to two separate things, a religious institution and a civil one, though it is most often enacted as a messy conflation of the two. As a civil institution, marriage offers practical benefits to both partners: contractual rights having to do with taxes; insurance; the care and custody of children; visitation rights; and inheritance. As a religious institution, marriage offers something else: a commitment of both partners before God to love, honor and cherish each other—in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer—in accordance with God's will.
I agree that in the U.S. (and elsewhere) marriage has this dual function. But I would argue that this "conflation of the two" purposes of marriage might actually be the problem. (Proposition 8 in California is yet another reminder of how divided people are on this issue.)
So here's my novel proposal: completely separate these two institutions, religious and civil, on this issue. Instead of worrying about the state restricting marriage to certain people or broadening its definition to include others, get the state out of the question of marriage entirely.
How would this look? Well, the state would stop granting "marriages" and only grant "civil unions." These would be offered to any two adults—though surely certain legal restrictions would still apply—consenting to partner together contractually for the purposes of "taxes; insurance; the care and custody of children; visitation rights; and inheritance." The church, on the other hand, would perform marriages only for those people for whom the particular church (or denomination) deemed eligible. In perhaps the majority of cases, church marriages would happen nearly simultaneously with state-sanctioned civil unions, but they would be two completely separate institutions with completely separate functions.
This would allow churches to practice their convictions—some might grant gay marriages; others might not. It would allow all members of society to be treated fairly—no group would be legally discriminated against, since all parties would have equal access to the only state recognized union available, civil unions.
Even for those who believe (rightly or wrongly) that the Bible defines marriage as between a man and a women, why should anyone think that it's the state's role to maintain that biblical definition? (Is it the state's role, for example, to uphold the biblical view of divorce or adultery?) Alternately, for those who think (rightly or wrongly) that marriage for all is an issue of fairness and justice, why think that it's the state's responsibility to decide religious issues for the church? In short, for all parties involved, why think the state should play any role in the religious institution of marriage?
Of course, there would be some interesting ramifications of creating this church/state separation. Here are some that I foresee:
(1) Some couples might get married by a church without getting a civil union by the state and vice versa.
(2) The issue of "defining marriage" would be relegated and relativized to various denominational and church institutions, with various denominations and churches coming down on different sides of the issue.
(3) Some people's marriage in one church or denomination might not be recognized as legitimate by another church or denomination.
On the other hand,
(4) Churches and denominations might start taking the issue of marriage more seriously in their particular cases, rather than centering their focus on large-scale cultural or legal questions of marriage to the neglect of the actual marriages falling apart in their own church. This might give the church a more authentic prophetic voice on the issue, rather than being viewed merely as a political block.
(5) Nonreligious people might then feel discriminated against, since they no longer would have the option of a purely state-sanctioned "marriage." On the other hand, perhaps certain secular or humanist organizations could create their own nonreligious marriage institutions that would accommodate this concern. Alternately, nonreligious people might be drawn to churches for the purpose of getting married and in the process might find themselves becoming religious!
(6) Perhaps most importantly, gays and lesbians might not be as turned off by the church, because instead of the church forcing their morality on the gay community by pushing for legal or constitutional action, the church would simply be upholding their religious convictions within their own communities and not forcing them on larger society. Churches still might hope to influence larger society through their actions and prophetic witness, but they would do so as counter-cultural agents, not as political voting blocks.
Time for you, the reader, to sound off. What do you think? Is this proposal a step in the right direction? Are there other ramifications, good or bad, that haven't been mentioned? Let me know by dropping me a comment.