A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, July 06, 2015

Some Thoughts on Gay Marriage, the Supreme Court, the Mythology of History, Shallow Pop Theology, Civil Rights, and Other Subjects that Just Might Get Interjected in This Series of Posts #2

Civil Unions for the State and Marriages for the Church

In this second post I want to suggest something that I know won't happen, but I think that in the controversy over same sex marriage, if adopted it would make things easier for all involved.

Marriage is a religious institution; it always has been. The state never should have gotten itself into the marriage business. Putting the church and the state together as partners in the marriage has not only distorted the character of marriage, but has created problems for both church and state that could have been avoided.

So, my proposal is that the state get out of the marriage business all together and issue, everyone straight and gay, civil unions. The word marriage is to be reserved for the joining of two people by the religious institution-- church, synagogue, mosque, et al. (FYI-- I am certainly not the first person to suggest this. More than a few individual, religious and secular, have long been arguing for such an arrangement.

Here are my reasons for this.

First, as I said in my first post, the state and the church have two completely different understandings of marriage. For the state, marriage is a right not to be denied; for the church, marriage is a gift that is not owed to anyone. As long as we refer to both what the state does in giving licenses, and what the church does in joining two people together in holy matrimony as marriage, the two will continue to be confused as many persons, religious and not religious, already do.

Second, ensuring that the state offers civil unions to all couples means that all couples will receive equal treatment under the law, both gay couples and straight. All persons get the same legal rights and protections under the law.

Third, any couple who wants their union to be a marriage can then seek out the appropriate religious institution for their nuptials. Yes, there are churches that will not perform same sex weddings--Catholic, Orthodox, and some Protestant churches, but there are also Protestant Churches that will--the Episcopalians, for example, and some other mainline Protestant denominations. It will not be all that difficult to find a church that will perform a same sex wedding.

Fourth, this differently terminology will reinforce the notion that the church is about the gift of marriage while the state is about the right to civil unions, and that means churches cannot be sued for refusing to perform a same sex wedding ceremony because decisions about marriage will be solely in the realm of the religious. No one will have a right to get married, but everyone will have a right to a civil union.

Fifth, it seems to me that this approach to marriage/civil unions is one definitive place where the separation of church and state will truly apply, since it most often is a rather vague and amorphous distinction trotted out only when it will further an individual's or group's political agenda.

It this change were to be made, I think it would solve many headaches for those on both sides of the gay marriage issue.


Robert Cornwall said...

Allan, it seems to me that you are focused on the terminology. Whereas in Europe there has long been a distinction between state and religious functions, the line here has long been blurry. Why does the word marriage need to be reserved for the religious sphere? On a practical level American marriage is a civil union. What makes a legal marriage isn't the ceremony, but the signed paper. Yes, clergy act as a recognized signatory (agent), but my signature doesn't turn a civil license into a religious one.

The first amendment protects the right of clergy/church to decide who to marry. Divorce has been legal for years, but Catholic churches aren't forced to marry divorced couples.

So, what you seem to be asking for is that the State bow to the wishes of the church and change its language, so that we can have marriage all to ourselves.

Dan said...

Since that horse is already out of the barn (and it was something I heard and thought of prior to the Supreme Court decision as well), what is a way forward? For now, it's a bit of detente concerning churches that will not perform same sex marriages. But would language down the road toughen up so it's harder to keep that stance? If so, what would be a way forward at that point? Thanks for these great posts!

WB Truth said...

Why are you going backwards? After 50 years of fighting you suggest we move backward and give up gay marriage?

Also... you say a church will not gine to anyone. No. For the right amount anyone can find someone to marry them.

I know it is hard to believe... but not everyone is religious. Some are atheists. Why should they settle foe a watered down civil union. And of course you would have to change the IRS code. Bad idea on many fronts. Respectfully Mark

Allan R. Bevere said...

Hi Bob,

Thanks for your thoughts.

Different terminology is necessary precisely because the lines have become blurry. In law, verbiage is critical. Because of that blurry line some court somewhere is going to have to rule on it. So let's save ourselves some headaches and use different terminology.

My suggestion of marriage/civil unions is on option. I really do not care what terminology is used. I picked that up primarily from Roger Olson and Tony Jones. But if we want to call one holy marriage and the other civil marriage or something else, that is fine by me.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I am not suggesting a step backward. I am suggesting different terminology that reflects a difference between the secular and the sacred. It has nothing to do with whether or not one is more important than the other. In fact, some distinction is important because some want to be married without the religious connotations. More than a few non-religious folks have suggested basically the same thing I am suggesting. And I frankly do not care what terminology is used. I just think the distinction is a good idea for everyone.

And, to quote you, "I know it's hard to believe," but not every clergy person will marry a couple (gay or straight) for the right amount of money.

Robert Cornwall said...

Allan, if people want to distinguish the difference between the two, one could use the phrase "holy matrimony." It's a bit archaic, but it carries the sense of the sacred. As you know I'm not as concerned with the terminology as I am with the intent. Civil marriage is a contract. What we offer in church is a covenant. Now they are intermingled, I understand that, but theologically a covenant is different from a legal contract. When I officiate at a wedding, I'm participating in both the contract (sign the license) and the covenant, the vows.

I should note that because Michigan requires signing three copies of the license, two of which go to the County Clerk, I have those signed at the rehearsal and get them in the mail. So, if anyone gets cold feet on the day of the wedding they'll have to take it up with the County Clerk. They have already signed the contract.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Yes, I understand your point. I suppose I'm for anything that pulls the church away from its Christendom addiction.

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