I wanted to reply to responses I got on yesterday’s post, about the fight over legalization of same-sex marriage in New York and my own preference for civil unions as a way of sorting-out this extremely-contested issue. Comments made by posters Kukri and Dodson differ from mine by a hair’s width (of maybe 2 hairs). In any event, I felt I expressed myself more-clearly in the response, and when I finished I saw I had over 700 words on it, so here it is:
Kukri’s distinction–between the basis of marriage within religious institutions and that of civil unions as authorized by government whose role it is, and not religious groups’ to *enforce* our individual and civil rights–is useful because it reproduces the distinction I wanted to make between the legitimacy of the loving relationships of gay and lesbian adults and the traditional role religious institutions play (our various beliefs aside) in officiating over marriages. The problem it poses is that municipal judges or clerks (and ship’s captains) officiate over marriages all the time, too–though certainly in a minority of cases. This way of “partitioning” the issue into strictly-religious or secular dimensions would amount, in principle if not in practice, to telling traditional couples who happen to marry under a secular authority that they aren’t really married. The religious Conservatives who have marshaled over the issue of gay marriage haven’t gone that far themselves, and if those who are to be married under their municipality or at sea are told that a status that they take for granted has been revoked, they are very likely to feel a more intense sympathy for gays and lesbians on this issue than they might feel already; as heterosexual couples they are also likely to inspire a great deal of sympathy for the cause of marriage equality. So while that distinction sounds cleaner in principle than the obviously-political one I accept, in practice I would expect it to make the issue rawer, if anything, than it already is, and result in a stronger push for marriage equality.
This is why I see the “2nd from left” position of giving gay and lesbian couples the full legal benefits of marriage under civil unions while not forcing a legal tangle on an issue that religious institutions should really work-out for themselves, as giving all parties their due. Governments and employers have no right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation; on the other hand, requiring or even implying that religious organizations should officiate over marriages that both their leadership and their laity view as immoral and illegitimate isn’t a blow for civil rights so much as a disfigurement of institutions which, like our consciences, by rights are free. Gays and Lesbians might find my preference for civil unions insulting, even cowardly. That’s not the point on either count: I’m confident that love between monogamous, consenting adults is real regardless of sexual orientation, and in agreeing that gays and lesbians deserve full equality of rights regarding their unions while expressing sympathy for the sense of vulnerability adherents might feel for their religious institutions, I’m saying that giving both parties their due is more-important than being fully in either party’s camp.
On the question of whether religious organizations lobbying against gay marriage in the State of New York have simply trumped-up this fear of liability to lawsuit on discrimination grounds as a last-ditch attempt to deny marriage equality to gays and lesbians, that’s certainly possible. But this is yet-another reason, though only a weak one, why civil unions seem preferable to gay marriage to me: It seems pointless, in this instance, to speculate about whether leaders of religious groups claim to feel put-upon in good faith. (If you want to say a group of people are holding this issue up on bad faith, blame New York Senate Republicans; I’ll readily agree with that.) It seems that we can either concede that religious groups are concerned for their autonomy or call them liars as well as bigots. The 3rd way is much more-just in that it allows religious leaders to maintain their traditional role in relation to a word–but in that all they are able to keep is that word. Let the State confer gays and lesbians their rights of union; if religious groups decide they don’t want to take the side of civil rights and recognize loving couples that want to hold their rites of passage within a faith, let the leaders of that faith decide to close the door, and let the State protect the couple’s privilege to bind their lives together in their own way. It might be called cabbage instead of marriage, but where it is necessary and expedient gays and lesbians will find their own traditions.