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.