You Say Marriage, I Say Union


More evidence that, for many people, the issue of gay marriage really does boil down to semantics can be found in yesterday's New York Times:

Kathryn Czapinski, 59, a nurse and a Roman Catholic, said she was "totally outraged" by the [Massachusetts] court's decision, because of her religious convictions and the prospect of government spending on benefits for people whom she regarded as violating the sanctity of marriage.

But civil unions? "I have no objection," she said. "If they want to recognize civil unions for gays, giving them insurance benefits, things like that, I'm not against that."

Nor were Bill McConaghy, 66, a funeral director, and Walter Shields, 42, a carpenter and electrician for Septa, the area's public transportation system.

They both said they found the idea of gays marrying repugnant. They said they supported the idea floating through Congress of a constitutional amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Yet they held the same view as Ms. Czapinski. They said they were not uncomfortable with gay unions.

"I'm not against anybody living that way," said Mr. McConaghy, a Roman Catholic. "It's just the way I was brought up. Gay marriage is taking it way too far."

Mr. Shields, 42, said: "As a Christian, I don't believe in it. I don't read the Bible that way. A man is supposed to be with a woman." But as for two men or two women living together in a gay union, he said, "It doesn't bother me."

The Alliance for Marriage, which is pushing a constitutional amendment defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman, is clearly appealing to people like these when it says, "Americans believe that gays and lesbians have a right to live as they choose, but they don't have a right to redefine marriage for our entire society." Is there no way to escape this conflation of the government's licensing procedures with marriage as a religious, social, and moral institution?

One possibility, getting government out of the marriage licensing business entirely, is ideologically appealing, but it's not likely to happen anytime soon. A step in that direction, perhaps, would be to change the terminology, so that the arrangement certified by the government would always be called a "civil union," while "marriage" would be defined by each religious community for itself.

I doubt the folks at the Alliance for Marriage would go for that, and Andrew Sullivan probably wouldn't either. But their explanations for opposing such a compromise might help clarify the issue.

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  1. somebody shouldn’t have to wait for equality.

    Equality is a very relative term to use here. The concept of marriage insofar as it is defined, religiously, is for a man and a woman. The religious definition existed before our civil definition. Only via civil co-opting does marriage have a legal basis in the first place.

    Using a different name for something does not exemplify the “separate but equal” buzzphrase. I can call myself African because of the commonly accepted origin of our species, but what meaning would that have to society in general? What meaning should it have? It’s too much of a stretch for it to be taken seriously, regardless of the separation fostered by the distinction.

  2. It’s true you can’t legislate social equality, but creating a separate legal category for gays would be legislating social difference for no apparent reason.

  3. separate legal category for gays

    Civil unions do not create separate legal categories for gays. They create separate legal categories for the nuptial contract that is created by the license. The category is a distinction of semantics acknowledging the fact that our civilization co-opted the notion of marriage from religion, and that we have no right or basis as a state to redefine that notion, but a responsibility to provide the legal protections to homosexual life partners. The aspects of the case simply do not merit redefining the term, especially since the precedent that establishes those legal protections has already been created in a neighboring state.

  4. I live in Massachusetts, and I have yet to hear anyone answer the following question – if Massachusetts ends up with the “civil union” route, can a man and a woman opt for a “civil union” license rather than a “marriage” license? If not, wouldn’t that be discrimination again?

    Does anyone know what the answer to this is currently in Vermont with their civil union laws?

  5. Hmmm…. technological advances upsetting the institution of marriage….

    Now that I have a microwave oven, vacuum cleaner, dishwasher, in-suite laundry, fridge/freezer, stove, and a George Foreman grill … I see no reason to get married at all.

    “Frigidaire” and “Maytag” have trumped “household division of labour”.

  6. Gives a new meaning to the terms pro-union and anti-union, eh?

  7. .. I keep having folks tell me this is a “free” country .. my standard reply is, “Great! I guess I’ll smoke a joint, visit a prostitute and attend a gay wedding!”

    .. I would think that a country that bills itself as “free” would be a bastion of social experimentation, such as gay marriage, polygamy, what have you ..

    .. I guess that everyone else has a different definition of “free” than the one that I use ..

  8. For sure, dude.

  9. Allen Phelps,

    “Anyone else skeptical that if they do end up splitting the semantics into marriage and civil union that they will actually stay that way?”

    Well yeah, me, and that’s precisely what I said in my previous two posts! πŸ™‚

  10. Russ,

    Don’t forget the orgasmitron!!!! πŸ™‚

  11. >[proposal that] that the arrangement certified by the government would always be called a “civil union,” while “marriage”

    The important question here is whether all the laws, contracts, inheritance rights, tax forms, and so on would automatically apply to a civil union. And would a civil union in one state be recognized in others? By the feds?

    I don’t give a fig for the religion side of this, just the practical side.

  12. Back again,

    I would assume the answer to your question to be “yes,” that it would carry all the attributes of a civil marriage only not be called a marriage. Is there some reason why you think that would not be workable? (Asked out of genuine curiosity not skepticism.)

  13. I definitely do not assume the answer would be yes. I’m not sure how that would work. Would we have a federal law saying that “marriage” in any federal law, state law, or legal document means “marriage or civil union”? Similarly, the legal term “spouse” would also need to be defined at a federal level so that it included “partner in a civil union.”

    None of the talk I have heard of civil unions has suggested that.

    There’s been lot of talk about how civil unions are “just the same,” but not much talk about how to make them just the same.

    As it stands now, a civil union in one state is just a piece of paper in the rest of the country. That might give the couple a warm-fuzzy feeling but it isn’t truly practical.

  14. Agree 100% with the notion that for many people, this is a semantics issue and that it would help to give a different name to the set of rights endowed by the government. People are apparently too dense to see that the government can’t be endorsing their religious beliefs.

  15. Just speaking for myself and Mrs. Fetchet, I am going to start speaking of our marital status as a “non-same-sex union.” Chairman Gephardt coined the term last night during the Democratic presidential debate, and I think it’s so much more useful than the default term, “marriage”.

    On the other side of the coin, I’m starting to think that the whole gay marriage “moment” might be worth forgetting about if its going to carry that kind of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo baggage.

    And by the way, Jason, state recognition of marriage isn’t necessarily an establishment of religion. Secular marriage predates Christianity, with secular marriage and divorce being a prominent feature of the social scene in the Roman Republic.

  16. I don’t know how secular marraige was during the Roman Republic/Empire; they did, after all, sacrifice to various Gods before and during the marraige vows.

  17. I really don’t understand why people think the government is a dictionary.

    And as for Stephen’s point, it’s true that supporting “marriage” is not necessarily an endorsement of a specific religion, but appealing to a notion of the “sanctity” of marriage to deny certain people the right is certainly an infringement on their (ir)religious freedom.

  18. I’m frequently reminded of how all this social and possible legal and semantic change pretty much boils down to technology. What technology, you ask? Why improved birth control, of course!! When people complain about the licentiousness that the sixties brought us, I go, well duh, it wasn’t the sixties, it was the Pill and improved birth control in general. It was inevitable, not just the selfish propoganda of half-baked hippies!! (Elecctric guitars and Marshall amps played a role, too…)

    And now we have the institution of marriage continuing after technology has significantly altered the circumstances surrounding its original purpose (which I’d call the fostering of a stable child-rearing environment). Of course there’s going to be changes in the meaning of the institution as a result of the changed needs and goals of those who marry, as well as those who don’t. It’s always a hard sell for the government to try to change the language, as language organically changes to meet the needs of its speakers, but calling what the government licenses some kind of “union contract” would certainly be more accurate. Of course, the gov’t could call it that and everyone might just ignore the gov’t’s terminology anyway!

  19. Who could be against a civil union? It sounds so harmonious. Does this happen before, or after, the fecal union?

  20. The NYT interviewed these folks in Ardmore, PA. This is two towns over from where I grew up, and where my high school is located (Kobe Bryant’s HS too, if you care). It’s a Volvo-liberal town in the heart of Philly’s WASPy Main Line; where did they find all these reactionary Catholics?

  21. I have been saying all along that the heat can be taken out of this issue by changing “legal marriage” to civil union or somesuch, and letting churches do marriages as they wish. Religious and legal marriage are not particularly linked to each other now. You don’t need a religious ceremony to be legally married.

    I know why the reactionaries like to play on the ambiguity of “marriage”‘s dual legal and religious meanings. It drums up support and cash for their side.

    I am curious as to why so many gay activists seem so adamant about the “marriage” terminology. If all they want is legal equality, then “civil unions” should meet their needs. Insisting on “marriage” when it triggers strong opposition without furthering the goal of legal equality makes me wonder what else they are up to.

  22. This is admittedly a debatable point, but gay activists see a separate category of civil unions as a recipe for discrimination. They would compare it to “separate but equal”.

  23. which would be a fair comparison, perhaps.

    i don’t see how someone can stand there and say “gay marriage is evil, but gay civil unions, that’s ok” when the end result is exactly the same. seems rather…fucking nuts. being catholics can’t explain everything, after all.

  24. Also, I think the question of why they want the same certificate is less compelling than the question of why people don’t want to give it to them.

  25. oops, anon 12:30 was me not dhex

  26. R.C. Dean,

    As alma hadayn comment illustrates, calling gay marriages something different than hetero marriages has an insidiousness to it if you see it as a discrimination issue. I think Jacob is suggesting (and maybe you were too) that ALL civil marriages have the word “marriage” extracted from them. I agree that this would be both more consistent with what the government is actually doing as well as help diffuse the angst of the opposition. But the problem, as alluded to by alma hadayn in his first post, is that the governmnet is not a repository of language. They can call it what they want, but we’ll go on calling it what WE want. Still, it may be the best solution (changing the government’s vernacular to exclude “marriage” entirely), just don’t expect it to solve anything permanently!

  27. I agree that changing the state’s wording for all marriages to unions should be satisfactory.

    There are possibly some gay activists who actually want the state’s blessing for marriage, which is a much less reasonable demand (although many religious opponents of gay marriage feel the same way). This may be what R.C. Dean was getting at?

  28. Anyone else skeptical that if they do end up splitting the semantics into marriage and civil union that they will actually stay that way? I would suspect that in casual usage people would still refer to it as marriage rather than civil union (with some people objecting of course). In 20-30 years would the civil union term appear much of anywhere other than the government forms?

    For the record if two people of the same sex want to get married I personally have no objection (nor to them actually using the term marriage). My preference would be for the government to get out of it entirely although I don’t think that to be particularly likely any time soon.

  29. Alma hayaden is right, “civil union” and “marriage” may be legally equal, but they will not be socially equal. But I’m pretty certain that you can’t legislate that kind of social change. Maybe the activists on both sides are trying to clearly deliniate the battle lines? Perhaps we won’t be satisfied until everyone says what we all know they’re thinking: “I’m going to do whatever the fuck I want, so damn you and your religion” and “You’re living in sin and will spend and eternity in hell for it.”

  30. I really don’t understand why people think the government is a dictionary.

    Hey, it’s already a teacher, health care provider, global cop, social worker, and money bag. Why not add dictionary to the resume? πŸ˜‰

    But seriously, if the only legal difference between marriage and a civil union is the title at the top of the form, gays should probably accept that compromise, at least for now. If they get the exact same legal rights and responsibilities, only they call it by a different word, that’s still a pretty significant step.

    I know, it isn’t 100% perfect if your concern is 100% equality. And to some libertarians, anything that isn’t 100% perfect is as bad as even the most flawed thing. But any reasonable person should realize that this is a huge step. Give it a decade or so. Let people get used to the fact that the sky hasn’t fallen despite Adam and Steve sharing property ownership and power of attorney. Then change the name to take that final step toward 100% perfection.

    I know, I know, somebody shouldn’t have to wait for equality. And if I could wave the magic wand and make it all perfect overnight then I would do so. But there’s this little thing called reality, and in reality you have to accept a partial reform and then fight for the rest of the pie, rather than say “Nope, we want all or nothing.”

  31. “gay marriage is evil, but gay civil unions, that’s ok” when the end result is exactly the same.

    Leave “evil” to the people who need crosses and rainbow colored flags. Think practical. The lawsuit demanded the extension of legal civil marriage benefits to gay couples, and the VT framework provides exactly that. The SC did not say that the concept of marriage needed redefinition.

    All the legislature need do is provide an amendment to the Mass. Constitution that defines marriage as the bond between a man and a woman, and the SC decision becomes a paper tiger. Then what?

  32. I’m against Gay Marriage 100 percent. It does not bother me that they have benafits like every one else at work but I have to put my foot down win they say Gay Marriage. I’m Roman Catholic all of us Christens Baptist, Catholic, Luthern. What ever you are we should stand up and fight Gay Marriage being approved I’m from Chicago IL we have lot gays but I just think it’s mortale wrong.
    Take Carer

    God Bless

  33. EMAIL:
    DATE: 02/01/2004 06:03:38
    All sentences that seem true should be questioned.

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