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February 23, 2004

On Marriage: The Civilization of Domestic Partnership

The State has an interest, and in particular the Republic has an interest in the legal standing of domestic partnerships as part and parcel of its need to assist in the maintenance of civil society. It is the pursuit of domestic tranquility that acknowleges the value of domestic partnership. So a Civil Union or Common Law Union is perfectly acceptable to be recognized. But it is not the respectability of the State that concerns me so much as the moral authority of the Church. So while it makes perfect sense for me to accept a Common Law Union or a Civil Union, if the Church rewords the rite of Holy Matrimony to be gender neutral, I'm going nuts.

The State should not be obligated to recognize the standing of Married couples within the context of Christian sacraments or other religious rites. It is not for the State to say that 'Marriage is between a man and a woman'. The State should simply acknowledge this common universal understanding. I don't want the State nor any political movements to overstep their bounds with regard to making moral claims about their understanding of Marriage. That is for the Church to assert in the context of its traditions. It is a slippery slope for the State to say Marriage is X if the Church of the First Gay Anabaptists is founded out of schism. How then does the State reconcile its own definition of Marriage to that established by a religious rite? It cannot.

It is reasonable for chruches to defend the definition of Marriage in the context of the integrity of the rite. For example, I expect the Episcopal Church to defend its religious freedom by saying that Holy Matrimony is what they say it is and that any redefinition by the State in such a fundamental way as Gay Marriage would redefine impinges on the Church's free of exercise. But the Church does not have any claim on the legal status of a common law partner and cannot overstep its bounds. But proscribing the state's recognition of a Civil Union the Church crosses the line.

What society comes to recognize will depend upon these two actors doing the right thing. When I was a kid, none of the forms said 'Parent or Guardian' and I always thought it ridiculous to ask questions such as 'Mother's Last Name'. But I don't see such forms as a problem since I acknowledge the responsibility between children and their legal guardians. That doesn't make them parents any more than having a Civil Union between gays makes them husband and wife, but it does establish a vocabulary which is appropriate to their roles.

Maybe I'm parsing words a little too tightly, but I don't have a problem with 'domestic partner' nor much discomfort in 'spouse'. It's already gender neutral. If gays wanted to be recognized as spouses and seek spousal rights and privileges that is acceptable. It still does not make them Married, but civily united. Again, I think that it is crucial that Churches don't amend their rites to accomodate the political or economic needs of gays to secure their civil rights. Nor should the State try to assign value in recognition of religious rites in order to accomodate or reject moral positioning on the responsibilities gays already take for each other. Again, gays who do x and y as expressions of love, trust & respect in their domestic partnerships may or may not overlap with the cultural narrative of Marriage, but that doesn't make it Marriage.

Posted by mbowen at February 23, 2004 12:10 PM

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When it comes to terminology, which you are stressing here, doesn't the distinction between marriage and "civil union" become even more moot? In what would likely become common practice, that is.

Let's say a gay couple has a celebration to commemorate their "civil union". What are they going to call it? Well, some people might make up new terms or use archaic terms (e.g. "handfasting"), just as some heterosexuals make up or unearth such terms when getting, according to the law, "married". But most likely, this couple would send out invitations that said something to the effect of, "you're invited to our wedding." After the ceremony, what are these people to call each other? The awkward "spouse," or "partner," with its strange overtones? (Maybe I'm insane but I feel like if I introduce my boyfriend as my "partner" he should have on chaps and a cowboy hat, or should go around serving people with legal papers.) The reality of the situation is that these people would likely refer to each other as "husband" or "wife". Those words wouldn't be on the legal record, but they'd be the words that would most commonly be used in social situations. In fact, they're already being used now, even when gay couples aren't technically married because of the law.

Personally, I would be fine with the government only granting gays the right to "civil union" under the law, as long as that was all heterosexual couples were granted as well. Then, if you wanted to get married by a church, that would be purely optional. But again, the reality is that in such cases people would refer to themselves as "married," and to each other as "husband" or "wife".

I think I would understand your argument better, and disagree with it less, if you would further clarify the distinction between marriage in the eyes of the state versus marriage in the eyes of a given church. If isn't OK to call a union between homosexuals a "marriage" because it isn't sanctioned by the church, why is it OK for a straight atheist couple married by a Justice of the Peace to call their union one of "marriage," assuming you do think that is OK? (Perhaps I should assume that?) Neither relationship is sanctified by any religious denomination, and for argument's sake let's say in this example that neither couple would welcome such a sanctification. I don't see why either should be treated differently under secular law.

Posted by: susan at February 24, 2004 01:08 PM

My understanding is that the Common Law rules of 'marriage' in the eyes of the state apply whether or not a couple is legally married. In family court there are terms like 'estranged spouse' I believe it was when there are custody issues with a woman and man who never married.

I am defending the orders of Holy Matrimony in the general religious tradition, and I think GWBush is too in a more crude fashion. But I'll write out the full post.

I find it very difficult to believe that gay men call each other 'husband' and 'wife'; rather I know that gay culture has a very rich vocabulary, literature and narrative culture for their ways and means. If there can be such terms as 'pitcher', 'catcher' and 'bear', how hard can it be for them to come up with new ones? 'Partner' is real. So I disagree with your assessment of the reality of the situation.

Posted by: Cobb at February 24, 2004 01:27 PM

Most of the time, I have found that gay men who are married (whether their marriage is legally recognized or not) call each other "husband" and "husband" (whereas married lesbians would say "wife" and "wife"). Obviously the use of such terms would increase exponentially if people could form legally recognized relationships that were the same as marriage except that different terminology was used.

Posted by: susan at February 26, 2004 07:28 AM