Originally Published: August 9, 2011 9:58 p.m.
New York state approved gay marriage recently. That may work out, but the issue is likely to be an endless source of tension. Gay people shouldn't be prevented from marrying, but traditionally religious people will never accept government deciding something that, for them, is a religious question.
I've noticed that sometimes when a question seems to have no good answer, it's because we're asking the wrong question. Some years back, when gay friends were explaining the dilemma of their unofficial relationships, I realized that applied to this question. Should government define marriage as limited to a man and a woman? That's the wrong question. The question is, what the heck is government doing in the business of defining marriage at all? Why do we look to government to set the definition of it?
There are two separate issues here. Marriage is a religious issue that each religion or individual should be free to define for themselves. Government only has a few legal issues to be concerned with: who gets survivor benefits, who inherits, who is responsible for children, who can make decisions for someone in a coma.
What I'm suggesting is that government simply have a legal registry of these relationships. That's all government should give to anyone, gay or straight. If they want to go beyond that and have their relationship blessed and recognized as a marriage, that's up to their church. What government should do is something even less than a civil union. It's just an official registry of a kind of contract between people.
When people join their finances and legal rights in this way, it's a two-way street. There are both benefits, like survivor benefits, and responsibilities. If one partner dies and there are young children involved, this registry says who is on the hook to be responsible for them.
If you think I'm throwing a curve so far, here comes a bigger one. This registry can be between any consulting adults. (That precludes, by the way, any phony concerns about pedophilia or bestiality.) A person could only be part of one such contract, with some legal process to dissolve it, and the usual court oversight of issues such as child support. "Any consenting adults" would even allow for three-way relationships. If two consenting, adult women want to be the wives of one man, who are we to say no? Or the reverse? There would just have to be a listing of priority, so the courts don't have to settle who has authority to pull the plug on their comatose mate. And we are not going to pay out two Social Security survivor benefits. Other than that, it's the same as when there are two.
It's a historical artifact that government is involved in this issue. The solution is not to tweak the mistake this way or that, back and forth. The solution is to end the mistake altogether.
It is an inherent, endless and even ridiculous conflict for government to be in the position of defining the answer to a religious question. Marriage is a religious and spiritual question and should be returned to the purview of churches and individual beliefs. That's why the question has been so hard to deal with, because whether government should define marriage this way or that has been the wrong question all along. It is a question that shouldn't even be asked. We wouldn't ask whether government should declare male or female as a superior gender. We wouldn't ask whether government should declare Episcopalian or Lutheran as a truer church. That would be setting government up for an endless conflict. Why the heck do we ask government to decide this?
Your religion may have very fixed ideas on this and you may feel that the basic values our moral laws are based on, and the understandings our freedoms are based on, have religious roots. Religion is part of human history, part of how we understood things over time. But we're a nation of free people, and not one beholden to conform our laws to any particular religion. Get government out of the question altogether. Then let the churches make their own choice.
P.S. Thanks to letter writer Mr. Freeman for catching my incorrect term in a previous column. "Congress" does not equal "House."
Tom Cantlon is a longtime local resident, business owner and writer. Contact him at TomCantlon@TomCantlon.com.