Originally Published: January 11, 2004 7 a.m.
President Bush supports a constitutional amendment defining marriage as being between a man and a woman, but says he wouldn't oppose other arrangements for gay couples if the various states want to adopt them.
The conservative wing of his party is not very happy about that second part.
Both Vermont and California already have given legal status to domestic partnerships (or civil unions) for same-sex couples. This isn't marriage, but it gives similar benefits and responsibilities to couples who want to make such a commitment.
This past month it really hit the fan in Massachusetts when the state Supreme Court ruled that same-sex marriage is permissible under the Massachusetts Constitution. Real marriage for gays! If the legislators want to change the state's Constitution, they have six months to do so.
Today, Americans in general oppose same-sex marriage by about a 2 to 1 majority, but they also favor domestic partnerships by a somewhat smaller majority. This issue could become as controversial as abortion.
I'm no fan of Alan Dershowitz, the Harvard legal scholar, but he recently proposed an idea that makes sense to me. His logic goes like this:
• Those who oppose gay marriage believe deeply that marriage is sacred – a divine sacrament between a man and a woman as ordained in the Bible.
• Accordingly, marriage should be separate from our civil society, which draws a line between the sacred and the secular. Religious couples should go to their church/synagogue/mosque and be married according to their religious beliefs.
• Each faith would decide what to allow or disallow. Catholic churches could refuse to marry divorcees. Several churches would disallow gay marriages. Synagogues might not permit interfaith marriages.
• Holy matrimony would be a sacrament as determined by that church, but the religious ceremony would have no secular consequences.
• The state would be responsible for the secular aspect: such things as financial responsibilities, parental responsibilities, child custody, divorce, Social Security benefits, etc.
• Any couple could apply for a civil union established by the state, with its rights and obligations. Perhaps saying "I do" and signing an agreement before the proper authority would be sufficient. (When we married 54 years ago, we didn't sign an agreement to do anything. There was a verbal promise to love, honor, and cherish, but how do you enforce that?)
• The civil union would cover matters involving children, and also recognize that some marriages do not involve procreation or sex.
• This would accommodate gays and others who want a legally recognized relationship but cannot have one at present. It also would satisfy those who oppose marriage for gays.
• Placing the institution of marriage entirely in the hands of churches while the state handles civil matters would enhance separation of church and state.
This might sound like a radical idea, but it really isn't. Several nations do it this way. In the U.S. today, a couple can choose between a civil marriage or a church marriage, but they both do the same thing. Dershowitz's idea would make "marriage" a religious ceremony controlled by churches, while the "civil union" would be secular and subject to statutory control.
Isn't it sensible to get the state away from setting the rules for matrimony? And get the churches, with their widely divergent views, away from the secular part of relationships?