Why we should stop talking about legalizing gay marriage and start talking about civil unions for all

This is an editorial and a notable detour from my usual urbanism-related articles. 

It was only a few days ago that American President Barack Obama made another first by declaring his political support for gay marriage in the United States. As expected, this move that has split the American public on an issue that is already divisive. It seems that Americans who are not in support of gay marriage are either against the practice of homosexuality or against the idea of gays getting married like straight people (and in some cases, both).

In trying to understand the latter perspective, there are a few key elements at play that we should all consider. First, the constitutional separation between Church and State (often referred to in an idealistic, patriotic sense) is rarely practiced in everyday life — including when it comes to this thorny issue. Second, the focus of this debate is too often misdirected on gay marriage; instead, I suggest we take a step back and ask ourselves why we continually use a religious term (“marriage”) to refer to a legal institution in the first place (and then, stop doing it).

On the Separation Between Church and State

In the 1600s and 1700s, the concept of separating the Church (religion) and the State (the government) was uniquely progressive. At this time, many immigrants were fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, and coming to the United States in droves as a safe haven. This idea was penned in the constitution in order to prevent future religious persecution. Separating the church (religious worship) from the state (government regulation), signified an effort to promote a catholic respect for people’s freedom of religion, to prevent one religion to come into power and its ardent followers to persecute the people of other faiths. The concept intended to allow people to practice their religion (or no religion, if their choice) freely.
But this separation also has a second, and important reference: that law should be neither guided nor determined by religion and religious practice.
The Blurry Distinction Between Legal Marriage and Religious Marriage
It is here that things become blurry, especially for the institution of marriage. In the Catholic Church, for example, “marriage” is an actual sacrament  (a sacred rite of particular significance and importance). It’s preceded by other sacraments, including Baptism (a religious rite where the individual is introduced to the Church), Confirmation (when believers are anointed with the Holy Spirit), Holy Eucharist (also known as Communion, when believers receive the bread the wine, believed to be the body and blood of Jesus Christ) and for some, Holy Orders (when believers commit to become priests and nuns). So as you can see, for Catholics (along with people of other denominations who follow similar traditions), getting married is something you prepare for – mentally and religiously, just like becoming a nun or a priest. It’s a commitment between a man, a woman, their families and the Church. Kind of a big deal. That said, the trouble is that people now refer colloquially to the legal practice of two people coming together in partnership as marriage — even when the Church is not involved and the process is solely a legal one. For example, in the State of New York, one must to obtain a “marriage license (a legal document) before undergoing any “marriage ceremony.” This ceremony could be a religious one, taking place in a Church, officiated by a religious leader like a priest of minister; it can equally be a legal ceremony officiated in the Office of the Clerk during regular business hours). In the State of New York, if two people are married only in the Church, the marriage is not legally valid. They must obtain a marriage license, go through the marriage ceremony, and obtain a marriage certificate (in New York, known as a marriage record), a legal document that provides each party in a married couple certain rights as legal partners.One needn’t practice any particular religion (or any religion at all) to get “married” in the legal sense — people who aren’t Christians get married all the time, including atheists. You can even apparently get married in little or no time in Las Vegas. Therefore, at the same time that “marriage” is a religious sacrament for some among us, it’s definitely also a legal institution for all of us, and this part is and should be completely separate. The issue is that we refer to them using the same term, and as a result, interchangeably.The result: The term “marriage” is now a very religiously loaded term in the United States, and I argue that is why some are so dead set against the idea of gay marriage. To phrase it in this way literally puts together two things that in traditional Catholic teaching (and many other Christian denominations’) are denounced (homosexuality) and valued incredibly highly as a sacrament (marriage). And therein lies the problem, and in this problem, I think that we are all equally at fault. 

But the stakes are high on a practical level — to better understand why, take a look at this list of rights and responsibilities accorded to “married” couples in the United States. This list demonstrates that somehow, we need to figure out an equitable, respectful way to resolve this issue and protect couples’ rights, no matter whether it’s a same-sex or an opposite-sex couple. In the end, it is the rights that people want — whatever the situation or practice may be called. We should all be able to have the same status, and we should all be accorded the same rights. 

So I advocate that we scrap the term “marriage” from the legal process altogether. Let’s call it civil unions. Gay, straight, atheist, Christian, Muslim, Jewish, whatever, when it comes to the legal practice and the corresponding rights, we can refer to everything as civil unions.* No more of this “marriage” business. We should once and for all really separate the Church and State, like we’ve been saying since 1776. We can all get civil unions, and and we will leave marriage for the stuff that they do in the churches as their sacraments and sacred rites.**

The point is to restore this legal institution to what it’s meant to be – the legal recognition of the joining of two consenting adults to share their wealth and assets, to have a say in health emergencies and other legal instances. Because two people who want to be together (till death do they part) deserve that right — and they’ll probably need it, too.

*This is actually kind of tricky, I realize — as it’s states that determine marriage law, not a singular entity like federal law. 

**What’s not helpful is according heterosexual couples marriages and same-sex couples civil unions or other-terms partnerships as a weak attempt to provide equality. That’s tantamount to the “separate but equal” laws back in the 1950s United States. It’s 2012, not 1952. 

So what do you think? Do we need a new start and a new perspective on the gay marriage issue? Am I being way to simplistic in bringing it down to semantics? How can we move forward?


  1. I think the term “Marriage” has significances that are not only rooted in religion. I also believe that there are many homosexuals who are devout christians or “believers” and hold themselves to the same religious requirements/standards as to what a marriage should mean, and would hold very strongly to their faith. I think my thoughts on same sex marriage is also still “evolving”. However, I believe that if two people love each other, their love should not be restricted, disected and put through a public trial. I say live and let live and let every person account for themselves before their maker (whoever they believe that to be). In all, the disparity and inequality has to stop.

  2. Thank you Victoria! Finally, someone said it.

    I've been getting some very strange looks lately, for saying that I don't support gay marriage because I don't support secular marriage in general. You summed up my thoughts perfectly.

    Marriage is a traditionally contract of purchase between a religious man and the family of the woman whom he is acquiring as his chattel property.
    Extending this into the civil sphere was a questionable idea in the first place.

    I fully support civil partnership for any two human beings; leave “marriage” for regular attendees of a church/mosque/synagogue etc.


    @ Anonymous #1, above:
    >”I also believe that there are many homosexuals who are devout christians”

    – then let them take it up with their own churches. And let them, along with other practitioners of religion, keep their religious issues out of the civil sphere completely.

  3. “I believe that if two people love each other, their love should not be restricted, disected and put through a public trial. I say live and let live and let every person account for themselves before their maker (whoever they believe that to be).”

    — Thanks for saying that. I so agree.

  4. Glad we're on the same page — thanks for your comment! Yeah, I don't even want to take a religious stance on this, because I'd like to see this as something as non-religious as me getting my driver's license.

    You pointed out an issue that I didn't but is also hugely problematic with the foundations of marriage — a contract that treats the woman as property. Thanks for this additional input.

    We all should be able to obtain the legal recognition regardless of our sexual identity/preference/belief system. Like I said, to me it's about the corresponding rights, not the word that we call it – but let's all have the same rights and let's all call it the same thing.

  5. Civil union has my wholehearted vote!

    Further love your comment “because I'd like to see this as something as non-religious as me getting my driver's license”.

    Civil union should indeed be a legal contract wherein two partners – irrespective of gender, race or creed – are afforded appropriate and equal legal recognition and rights. No partners who are contracted in civil union should be persecuted for that union – whether same-gender partners, those from differing cultures or differing races.

    Where religious groups choose to pursue a further ceremony, let them follow the civil union with their marriage of choice, but not deny civil union to those who so desire.

    Thank you for posting this!

  6. Wow, I have been saying this for YEARS. It’s nice to hear the viewpoints so eloquently explained and argued. I’m atheist and socially progressive, but I agree — marriage is a term surrounded by a variety of religious and sociocultural constructs — it makes no sense for the government to involve itself with ‘marriage’ at all. Civil unions for all, I say.

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