June 05, 2006

Why pushing for gay marriage isn't a good move.

It's not a popular position in the progressive circles I roam, but I don't think that pushing for gay marriage in the US is a good idea. It would be better to first get the government out of the marriage business entirely.

No, hear me out, it's not crazy. At its root, the problem comes from the government meddling in a religious institution. You may want to argue that marriage shouldn't be a religious institution, but you'ld be fighting centuries of history there. Not smart. It is much more sensible to argue that the government should limit itself to the nuptial contract - the secular aspect of marriage. It can limit what is allowed in the contract, specify things that have to be in there, approve it, file it and enforce it.

Here in Belgium, things go something like this:

1) You get hitched "for the law", which consists of signing your marriage contract in front of a city official, who will first read you your rights and your duties under the law, and provide you with a nice leatherbound Cliff notes version of the applicable laws. Of course, before that you need to have the contract prepared and verified by a credentialed professional, who will also go into the details of what the hell you're getting into.

2) If you want to, you can go to a church and have them perform another ceremony, which will establish your married status according to that churches' rules. Or you can go to a local bar, and have the bartender douse you in martinis, and thereby declare yourself married to your community of drinking buddies. Or dance naked in a circle on the wet grass and jump over a broom. Sky's the limit.

That's how things are here, in Belgium. And in the Netherlands. In Spain, you can get married in church only, and bring the certificate to the registry, but you can also just get married in the civil ceremony. And in all those countries, same-sex marriage is legally recognized.

Separating the legal aspects of marriage from the religious aspects has many benefits:
1) It makes it perfectly clear that, for the government, you're simply in a contractual agreement. A very specific one, to be sure, but one that translates into clear legal obligations, that are spelled out to you.
2) It makes all legal benefits (and drawbacks) available to those who are allowed to legally marry. The decision to allow people to enter into this type of contract is now a purely secular one.
3) Religious people can see these legal unions as different from their own kind of marriages. So they don't need to get worked up about them. This means that extending the legal benefits to same-sex couples now becomes much easier.
4) It reinforces the separation between religion and state.

Of course, you don't get to piss off religious people with this approach, which I'm sure will disappoint some. But it is the best way to achieve a lasting status for gay marriage in the US. The push to legalize gay marriage without first separating the religious and secular aspects of it is simply bound to generate a backlash.


Blogger Alice said...

Hey, I agree with your major point - but despite the constitution, church and state are all intermingled in the USA. Fact is, if you want a civil union as a gay couple, you can usually find a way to do that. It's just different from the "marriage" out-of-the-box - the things that married people get to do that "civilly united" people don't have as an automatic right, e.g. visiting their partner in hospital. What gay people in the states want is an "out of the box" solution along the lines of marriage, with all the same rights, where it's federally recognized - you sign on the dotted line, and the agreement is valid across state lines. Agreed there's a ridiculous sticking point fighting over using the word "marriage" - but the religious right in the USA won't even agree to civil union status for gay couples - even if you take away the word "marriage," they'll still fight it. They just don't like gay people. They think gay people are all going to hell, and they'll do anything in their power to make life more difficult for them. The problem isn't legal, per se, it's the fact that the USA just isn't as secular a place as Europe.

12:48 AM  
Blogger Granny said...

Like Lukku, I agree with your reasoning but I don't think you quite realize how ugly this whole thing has become over here.

Even our one state which allows actual marriage is fighting to keep it.

California, which has one of the most far reaching domestic partners legislation, is fighting as well. Also, it doesn't bestow all the rights of "marriage". We're working on that while trying to hold on to the gains that have been made. It's a new battle every year.

Lukku is right about what most gay people would settle for. All the rights of marriage and the "full faith and credit" written into the Constitution honored in all states.

Very few care what the individual churches do. They aren't necessary now for marriage and they are never forced to marry anyone.

The civil license and ceremony are sufficient.

We won't have that either if the bigots have their way. Many of the new state laws defining marriage are purposely written to exclude gays from all of the benefits of marriage, thereby wiping out any gains they might have made.

This country is blurring the separation of church and state lines more every day and we're edging closer and closer to theocracy.

For the sake of my son, I have to keep fighting for his rights or soon he won't have any. I fear for him and this country.


9:59 AM  
Blogger Endorendil said...

hi Lukku, thanks for the comments.

I thougt that it's still hard to get things like inheritance or even health insurance squared away as a gay couple, at least in most states, isn't it? I don't think that the fight for civil unions is about making things easier for gay couples (although that is a valid point too), but to make things possible. In some cases, civil unions for gay couples will actually make things harder for them. While I was at MIT, gay students could get health insurance for their partners, whereas I couldn't even get it for my fiancee...

I agree that homophobes won't be won over by separating the legal issues from the religious ones. But they are a small fraction of the religious (and non-religious) voters. In the end, if you really believe someone is going to hell, isn't that punishment enough? It seems to me that christians who want to meet out punishment for sin in this world are usurping power from their god, and are either filled with hubris or filled with doubt.

The US being a rather religious country is an unfortunate fact of life. It is tightly wrapped up in its national identity. But I think most of the persistent problems are more an issue of having a horribly bad political system, which lends itself to exploitation and all-or-nothing politics, rather than reasoned debate and compromise.

Religious people don't necessarily think that they are affected by someone else's actions. Even when they do think that, they may still think that other things matter more (like, say, war, corruption, pollution, poverty, etc.). There are plenty of religious people in Spain, the Netherlands and Belgium. They don't seem too upset.

11:39 AM  
Blogger Endorendil said...

Hi Granny. I don't disagree that this is an acrimonious and important issue, but I think that fighting for gay marriage, without first separating the religious aspects from the secular ones, is counterproductive. And as long as there is legal equivalence between all marriages, you've gone as far as the legal and political process can (and should) carry you. There then remains the battle for social and cultural acceptance, but that is one in which the government has little role, and which will be a long, perhaps permanent battle. Trying to achieve both these things at once is - in my view - dangerously overreaching. I advocate the two-step process mainly for tactical reasons.

12:15 PM  

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