Sunday, January 22, 2006

Sacral Rites and Civil Rights: A modest proposal (of non-marriage)

Copyright (c) 2006 by Joel Marks
Published in the Milford Weekly on March 11, 2005 (page 4)

Now that the General Assembly’s Judiciary Committee has approved legislation for civil unions in Connecticut, there are some who think that same-sex marriage cannot be far behind. I myself would welcome that development, but I know that many others would not. However, I think there is an alternative that could make everybody happy.

While a group of us were traveling to Hartford last June to rally on the Capitol steps on the occasion of the first legal same-sex marriages in Massachusetts, it suddenly dawned on us: What business does government have endorsing marriage in the first place? All the ballyhoo about "protecting" marriage has come from religious constituencies. Well, then, let them have marriage. Why not divorce government from marriage altogether and instead carve out a strictly "legal arrangement" for all who wish to be lifelong intimate partners?

Of course that is precisely what civil unions are supposed to be. The more enlightened among the "defense of marriage" folks at least recognize that there is a host of legitimate legal concerns, such as hospital visitation and social security benefits, that those "living in sin" should be humanely granted. Thus, they have been willing to compromise and to accord such legal rights to homosexual couples so long as marriage remains heterosexually sacrosanct. But doesn't that imply that marriage is supposed to be a religious institution? Why, then, should government be regulating it at all? Let government deal with civil rights, not sacral rites; and let the religious right have its religious rites. Civil union, not marriage, should be the law of the land.

My proposal, therefore, is that civil unions be mandated for all who heretofore have sought marriage licenses. Those heterosexual couples that want to add a religious dimension can then have a church wedding besides and become married. For that matter, those homosexuals who want to be married ought to be able to find a church that will bless their union as well. There is no reason to surrender religion to the right. For example, in 1985 the General Synod of the United Church of Christ adopted a resolution that “encourages the congregations of the United Church of Christ to adopt a non-discrimination policy and a Covenant of Openness and Affirmation of persons of lesbian, gay and bisexual orientation within the community of faith.” Our own Woodmont parish of the UCC just recently adopted such a policy.

Indeed, there is a movement that is gaining ground around the world to push for greater rights within one's religion and not just in civil society. Legal scholar Madhavi Sunder (UC Davis School of Law) has coined the term "New Enlightenment" for this extension of Eighteenth-Century Enlightenment concerns from the public sphere into the heretofore private sphere. An example that Sunder cites is women's activism for equal rights in certain Muslim communities.

Thus, this "modest proposal" (of non-marriage) would still enable almost everybody to marry, and it would even have the added bonus of according marriage just the sort of religious imprimatur that "save marriage" proponents seek. The latter would also still be free to fight whatever battles they wanted for the "purity" of their own church or congregation, and if they win or lose, the loser can always move to another establishment (or keep fighting). Nobody is going to deny freedom of religion in this country, are they?

The one possible true "loser" in this proposal might be atheists, but in America even they are likely to find a safe haven. First of all, some atheists would probably be perfectly satisfied with the civil union they would be able to obtain from the government. Secondly, there are religious establishments that would accept them. For example, I once heard a local rabbi claim that all Jews are religious, even if they are atheistic, since the name "Israel," which the angel gave to Jacob at Peniel (Genesis 32:28), means "struggles with God," and even atheists are struggling with God. Thirdly, some religions are atheistic to begin with, for example, Buddhism.

Therefore, the opponents of same-sex marriage face a stark logical choice: Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and relegate marriage to religious establishments only, or else recognize marriage as a properly governmental affair. Either way, same-sex marriage cannot possibly be opposed by any American who believes in freedom of religion and equal rights under the law.

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