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.


  1. Oh, fie. How does this solve anything? You seek to deny the deliberate-slappers-in-the-face their slap. I suppose there may be some small number of people out there who are unwilling to let the government define marriage in a way they don’t like, but wouldn’t mind the government simply declining altogether to give marriage a definition. But I kind of suspect that the people who are willing to put effort, money, and whatnot into lobbying against same-sex couples being officially recognized as married feel morally compelled to define things for everybody, not just to resist the imposition of definitions they don’t like.

  2. P. S. Are there any musings here? I think I see some rants, and possibly some thoughts, but maybe the musings are to come later?

  3. No, I’m actually being serious: I think it would be best for the government not to be involved defining the meaning of a religious and spiritual bond. There are aspects of partnership that have nothing to do with spirituality per se: for example, its contractual nature, the inheritance effects, the tax effects, the legal right to make medical decisions for each other, that sort of thing. These aspects are better thought of as part of a “civil union” code than a “marriage” code.

    The number of people who are unwilling to let the government define marriage in a way they don’t like, but wouldn’t mind the government simply declining altogether to give marriage a definition, should be roughly equal to the number of people who support marriage-equivalent civil unions but oppose same-sex marriage. I don’t know what that number is, but I think it’s not the important question anyway: since some states have actually passed such civil union laws, we *know* that it’s possible to get them passed.

    Framing the issue in these terms puts those who would deny legal partnerships for same-sex couples on the defensive. With “marriage” off the table, those who still oppose the partnerships would at least have to be completely open about the fact that they want to obstruct legal partnership itself.

  4. Good on you Karl. Here in Canada we’ve got a lovely independent judiciary, with a supreme court that’s bound to interpret case law and uphold the charter of rights and freedoms, and has ruled any ban on same sex marriage in violation of the charter. But your solution works in theory for the US. Think it could ever pass? Who supports same sex rights at the Federal level?

  5. Unfortunately, I think that proponents of your solution would end up being accused of attempting to destroy the institution of marriage. Now, granted, these folks are already being accused of same, but at the moment those arguments are fairly ridiculous. Once we actually start lobbying to get rid of some aspect of marriage, their accusations start to hold some water.

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