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A marriage, gay or straight, is first a civil union

David Kirp

A professor of public policy at UC Berkeley, David L. Kirp is the author of "Almost Home: America's Love-Hate Relationship with Community" and "Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education."

The article below was first published as an opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee.

"Our nation must defend the sanctity of marriage."

You'd be pardoned for assuming that this declamation, with its overtly theological overtones, had been lifted from a Sunday sermon, but it actually comes the recent State of the Union address. To President Bush, the implication was plain: Marriage must be the union of a man and a woman, because that is in "God's sight."

Religion was again on the president's mind last week, when he endorsed a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage — an amendment that, if adopted, would mark the first time (other than Prohibition) the nation rewrote its founding document to constrict liberty.

"The union of a man and woman is the most enduring human institution, honored and encouraged by every religious faith," the president said.

'The marriage license is simply that — a license or a civil contract. It gives legal recognition to a relationship but doesn't purport to convey "sanctity."'
-David Kirp

As a private citizen, the president is of course entitled to his belief that he knows what is in God's sight. So are those who speak of holy matrimony or who venerate marriage as a sacred covenant and a sacrament. But the rhetoric used by opponents of same-sex marriage conflates private beliefs with public values, the church altar with the public square.

What's forgotten in the process is that the marriage license is simply that — a license or a civil contract. It gives legal recognition to a relationship but doesn't purport to convey "sanctity." Indeed, it couldn't. In a nation whose Constitution safeguards religious liberty while forbidding any "establishment of religion," that's the province of the clerics, not the government.

This isn't merely a squabble about the meaning of words. Civil union, a separate and almost equal version of marriage, sounded radical when the Vermont Supreme Court mandated it four years ago. But how quickly it has achieved mainstream acceptance.

John Kerry and John Edwards have both endorsed it; even the president, in his jeremiad against gay marriage, hinted that that he had no problems with the civil union.

Opponents of same-sex marriage witness the goings-on at San Francisco's City Hall, where more than 3,500 such rites have been performed, and see the rebirth of Sodom. Arguments, in and out of the courts, over Ten Commandments monuments, student-led "invocations" before high school football games and the "under God" language in the Pledge of Allegiance offer a reminder that as a nation we are regularly at odds over the proper place of religion in civic life. The stakes are higher, however, when it comes to same-sex marriage. Like abortion, the only issue that evokes similarly intense passions, the very idea is viewed as a sacrilege.

Opinion polls confirm the influence of religious beliefs on attitudes toward gay marriage. While nearly six in ten Americans (59 percent) oppose the idea, according to a survey conducted last fall by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, among those who profess a high level of religious commitment the proportion of anti's is much higher - nearly seven to one (80 percent to 12 percent). Antagonism toward homosexuality, rooted in religious conviction, is the main reason.

When asked why they object, more than a quarter (28 percent) volunteer that homosexuality is immoral, a sin or violates biblical teaching, and an additional 17 percent say that gay marriage conflicts with their religious beliefs. Only a tiny minority advances the nominally secular arguments that opponents usually put forward in public - that the purpose of marriage is reproduction (4 percent) or that gay marriage undermines traditional families (1 percent). To the opponents, gay marriage and ungodliness are one and the same.

Conservative Christians habitually recite the biblical injunction to love the sinner but not the sin. There's no reason for these congregations of the like-minded to consecrate gay marriages — no reason, if it comes to that, for them to allow gays and lesbians in their congregations. When San Francisco started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, there were reports of parishioners who feared that their churches would have to conduct gay marriages, more evidence of the confusion between the religious and the sectarian.

When it comes to marriage, the French have the right idea. There, every couple must first be married in a civil ceremony, which is usually held at the town hall and presided over by the mayor. Only after that event — and only if a couple opts for it — is there a religious ceremony. The theory is that the civil ceremony is a declaration of the couple's love before man, while the religious ceremony is a declaration before God.

Still, the French haven't authorized same-sex marriage, opting instead to craft a version of marriage lite called civil solidarity pacts. While we're unlikely to take our cue from Old Europe and turn matrimonial responsibilities over to mayors, we'd do well to unpack the double meaning of marriage as a word that carries both secular and sacred connotations. The logical way to accomplish this would be to call state-sanctioned marriage, whatever the gender of the partners, what it really is: a civil union.