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A Modest Proposal: How to Make Everyone Happy About Lesbian and Gay Marriage

The debate about lesbian/gay marriage has reached a stage of pure symbolism: many people are now comfortable with the idea of “civil union” laws, which grant all the privileges of marriage without calling it “marriage”. Some state governments have even passed such laws, and more will undoubtedly follow.

Understandably, not everyone is happy with this. It’s clearly a deliberate slap in the face for people who want to marry partners of the same sex — a slap that stings all the more because it is legitimized by democratically-elected legislatures. We’ll give you everything you want, except the right to call it marriage, because that’s sacred, you see. You will always be a second-class citizen, because we’ve passed a law that contains a clause whose only purpose is to make you feel second-class.

There’s a solution, though.

Let’s treat marriage as though it’s really sacred. Let’s get the government out of the marriage business entirely, and do only civil unions, leaving marriage for religious institutions. Effectively, that’s what we already do anyway. The secular, state-supported side of marriage is represented by the marriage license; the government doesn’t care about the religious details (if any) of the ceremony, even though that’s the part everyone thinks of as the “real” wedding.

So we’d all get civil unions, and those who want to also be married (and can find a priest willing to perform what is essentially a religious ceremony) are free to do so. If a lesbian couple wants to be married, that’s between them and their church. There’s no reason for the government to get involved in the matter, and no reason for a secular democracy to try to define the spiritual meaning of marriage, as opposed to its legal meaning.