The simple solution to the gay marriage issue

Executive Summary: Civil unions for everybody, no matter if you’re gay, straight, or French Canadian. Also, we learn that if you refer to people as “folks” you can call them stupid and still sound nice.

Gay people are rightly upset that they are being treated differently under the law, and they have an absolutely valid point that they can not be considered equal in the eyes of the law until the language is exactly the same for everybody. They thus have every right to reject the compromise that offers them “civil unions” while straight couples get “marriage.”

However, the crux of the problem is that marriage is originally a religious institution. (See comment discussion below.) So, religious folks are upset, and perhaps even a bit rightly, because they see gay marriage as the state sticking its nose in a religious matter. Granted, it rings a bit hollow, as they certainly never objected when the government got into the marriage regulating business to begin with, but their past errors don’t mitigate their present grievance. Despite the one-dimensional caricature of religion from the left, polls show that Americans overwhelmingly support equal rights for gay people, despite 84% of them identifying as religious.

What’s missing from the debate is that for all the finger pointing at religious extremists, a lot of mainstream Americans voted against gay marriage. After all, half of California is not fundamentalist. I think the disconnect is that many mainstream moderately religious people simply don’t appreciate having elements of their culture usurped through legislation, and that’s what they perceive as happening when laws are passed to expand the definition of marriage. Ironically, the idea that one’s cultural institutions shouldn’t be subject to popular vote is an idea that I’d think most gay folks would actually empathize with.

This may all seem like petty semantics on both sides. What should matter are the rights, not the language used. It would be nice if religious folks just got over it, and realized that the redefinition of marriage by the state isn’t really imposing on their religion. I think both sides could stand to give a little, but it’s an impasse over language that’s not likely to ever go away. Apparently, everybody really really wants this “marriage” thing, except half the people who are married. (Best line about the whole topic I’ve heard: “I want gay people to have marriage so that they can be as miserable as straight people.”)

So, in a way both sides are right, and the basis of that paradox is the fact that a government supposedly separated from the church wrote legislation that mentioned marriage to begin with. It’s understandable to recognize legal rights for couples in the law, but it was flat out wrong (and probably even unconstitutional) to base the definition of those unions on anything having to do with religion.

The simple solution to this whole mess, then, is for the government to simply get the hell out of the marriage business! The word “marriage” should be expunged from the laws, and everywhere it should be replaced with “civil union.” I don’t care who is allowed to create a civil union, but there should be no mention given to clergy. Personally, I think judges, ship’s captains, and people with PhDs in the hard sciences are the only people that should be considered qualified to officiate a legal civil union, but it’s not a deal breaker for me.

The bottom line should be this: If you want to get married, you go to the church of your choice, where they are free to discriminate or not all they want; if you want legal rights for your spouse, you go the town hall to get a civil union. This should apply to everybody.

Furthermore, change should be done by amendment at the Federal level. Gay people shouldn’t have to worry that their rights will be revoked every time the Democrats lose control of congress. (Reckless entitlement spending shouldn’t be the price of love!) Thus, the prohibition against government legislation of marriage must be constitutional.

7 thoughts on “The simple solution to the gay marriage issue

  1. David Badash

    Jonathan, thank you for a very well-considered article. And I agree entirely – let religion have “marriage” and the state have “civil union”. Let the 1049 governmental benefits to which one is entitled when one is “married”, and thus denied to anyone who cannot, be afforded to anyone with a civil union.

    Now, perhaps you can help us figure out how to make this change happen? That’s a tough one!

    One point I do want to make though, and your article inspired me to do some research on the subject, is the origin of marriage. I found an excellent article in “The Week” magazine from 2004, and I had to subscribe to get to it, but it was worth it. (If you happen to have a subscription, the title is “The Origins of Marriage”, at

    Bottom line, it states that marriage was not originally a religious entity, but a legal one:

    “Marriage’s primary purpose was to bind women to men, and thus guarantee that a man’s children were truly his biological heirs. Through marriage, a woman became a man’s property.”

    “As the Roman Catholic Church became a powerful institution in Europe, the blessings of a priest became a necessary step for a marriage to be legally recognized. By the eighth century, marriage was widely accepted in the Catholic church as a sacrament, or a ceremony to bestow God’s grace. At the Council of Trent in 1563, the sacramental nature of marriage was written into canon law.”

    There are a few sites that have reprinted the piece in full, I’m sure a quick Google search will find them, but I wanted to share a bit of it with you.

    Thank you for your support and well-reasoned thoughts.

    1. Jonathan Post author

      Hi David,

      Thanks very much for your comment. It was probably a bad idea for me to even mention the notion of what it originallly was, because there is really no true beginning to the origins of something. Insofar as my argument is concerned, the point isn’t really how it started, anyway, but what it has become. I think it’s certainly fair to say the concept of marriage we have inherited is firmly entrenched as a religious institution, for better or worse.

      What you brought up is really interesting, though. If the prevailing definition of “marriage” changed once, obviously it can change again. I suppose the lesson of history here is that it will take a great hegemonic power to do so. We just don’t have that in a democracy, and society is otherwise too heterogeneous for the prevailing definition of anything to be coherently changed. Thus, if the word “marriage” is used, I fear the issue will never be settled. (Unless some central cultural power equivalent to the 16th century Roman Catholic Church comes about, and I think I speak for all sides when I say nobody wants that.)

  2. Pete T

    Marriage substantially predates both law and religion.

    Nor does modern marriage bind a woman to a man but is rather a union between the State and a woman. The man is definitively the subservient party, a guest in his own home at his wife’s discretion.

    And while I oppose governmental or even religious marriage, I’d question the wisdom of subjecting the tastes of the majority to that of the extreme minority.

    If anything there is far more historical and biological support for polygamy….the reproduction of successful males at the expense of noncompetitive males (the normal state in nature) than for barren “playing house” by homosexuals.


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