On November 4th, while many California progressives were out of town working for Obama, golden state voters passed Proposition 8, which denied same-sex couples the right to marry. As the California Supreme Court debates the legality of this proposition, the key issue is the role of government in marriage.
California and other states require notification when we're born, die, and marry. Religious institutions have parallel ceremonies to commemorate birth and death with baptisms and memorials. However, church and state merge when we marry. Only state officials can sign a birth or death certificate, but there are multiple possible signatories for marriage. Religious couples may have a minister or priest sign their marriage license, while non-believers have the option of getting a judge's signature.
However, in many countries outside the United States, there's complete separation between the civil ceremony and the marriage. In France, the marriage certificate is issued and signed by a mayor or judge; only after the civil union is legalized can the marriage take place.
Writing in the February issue of In These Times, Terry Allen suggests the US adopt the system used in France and separate the civil action completely from the marriage ceremony. "The state's job, then, would be to assign benefits, if any, to couples, but not to define who can enter into coupledom."
Allen's suggestion clarifies the marriage process. If couples want to ensure the considerable civil rights inherent with the status of marriage adoption, hospital visitation, survivor's benefits, and so forth they would apply for a civil-union license. If they want to ensure the blessing of their religious denomination, they would ask to be married by their minister or priest. This would be an entirely separate procedure, one that requires a prior civil union.
Under this two-step process, the question of who can marry is left to religious institutions. This is consistent with common practice, as the religious rules for who can be married have traditionally been more restrictive than those of the state. Churches usually won't let you marry your cousin or, in many cases, someone who is not baptized. States don't care about these distinctions. Nor should the state care about whether or not the couple is heterosexual.
The arguments for prohibiting same-sex marriages fall into two categories. The first cites the Bible and notes the supposed Old Testament prohibition against homosexuality. But many Americans are not Christians or do not accept this biblical teaching. What all Americans agree on is that marriage in a religious institution should be performed according to the rules of that denomination; if Baptists don't want to marry same-sex couples, that's their right, but it shouldn't prevent same-sex couples being married by Quakers or Unitarians.
The second argument against same-sex marriage asserts marriage of same-sex partners is inherently different than that of heterosexual partners and, therefore, shouldn't be termed marriage. This had led to laws providing for "domestic partnerships," "civil partnerships," or "civil unions." There are two problems with these laws. The first is that they typically fail to ensure the same rights to partners as the marriage laws do the right to equal coverage under insurance benefits being a notable example. The second problem is that they do not permit the same-sex couple to say they are "married" even though their union may have been blessed by their church. For example, at the present time, same-sex couples cannot get a marriage license in California, but can be married by liberal religious denominations such as Quakers.
Baring the state from issuing "marriage" licenses to same-sex couples is not a religious issue but a civil rights issue. It's a form of segregation, an indication of continuing discrimination against gays and lesbians.
In my lifetime I've seen racial attitudes dramatically shift. My grandfather regarded "coloreds" as inferiors, undeserving of full civil rights. My father saw blacks and browns as equals, but was uncomfortable mixing with them socially, wanted them to stay with "their own." Now, I have people of color in my family.
Progress with regards to sexual orientation has lagged that regarding race. In many parts of America, citizens regard gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender individuals as inferiors, undeserving of full civil rights. Just as white supremacists once justified segregation on the basis of pseudo-scientific studies alleging that people of color were genetically inferior, straight supremacists now justify the segregation of GLBT citizens on the basis of false science purporting to show non-orthodox sexual orientation reflects moral or psychological inferiority.
It's time to end discrimination against the GLBT community and all forms of segregation based upon sexual orientation. Speaking as a straight white guy, I believe the solution is simple. Get the state out of the business of marrying people. Let the state issue certificates of civil union to whoever wants them and let churches marry couples according to their rules.