Recently, I offered up some speculations and musings about gay marriage in America (“Examining gay marriage, separating church and state,” April 21, 2013). One reader responds:
Interesting piece, Steven. What does this mean in practice: “Individual denominations (Baptists, Methodists, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, etc.) would be free then, to include or exclude any couple (gay or straight) from the marriage symbol.”
Your words are wise and carefully chosen, your thinking layered and fair-minded. I see you want to bifurcate the institution into secular and religious arenas. That seems reasonable but presupposes those brands have any inherent meaning that differentiates them here on the ground. Marriage is a wholly inorganic construct, and it is our cute anthropological vanity that compels us to vociferously pretend otherwise and then hit one another with placards like morons. It’s like hosting a social schism over the rotary engine. As a custom, marriage is beginning to sow painful discord. Surely not what it was invented for. — J.W., Santa Barbara, Calif.
If they made me king, here’s what I’d do about the controversy:
Individual states would issue a license called “domestic partnership licenses.” The domestic partnership license would be a binding contract. It would dictate how you filed your taxes. It would enable you, as a couple, to manage a shared, family estate. It would give you the authority to visit a spouse who was hospitalized. It would qualify you as a “spouse” who could be named in a family health care policy from your employer. It would also require a legal action (divorce) to dissolve this domestic partnership.
Any two citizens in good standing, 18 years of age or older, who had the license fee and picture ID in their pocket, could acquire a license and enter into a binding domestic partnership.
There would then be no civil right, legal or economic opportunity (or responsibility) that would be denied a gay couple based on sexual orientation. This resolves the justice issue I mentioned in my original column.
This would also preserve the meaning of the word “marriage” for the symbolic and theological sensitivities of the Jews, Christians and Muslims. Like me, for instance. Though, as I said in the first column, I think we lost this argument when we first “got in bed” with secular government to issue marriage licenses. Americans can’t have “separation of church and state” both ways.
And, if religious folks thought through this, they would remember it has already happened. Since forever there have been American heterosexual couples who have sought and acquired marriage licenses, entered into a binding, legal marriage before a magistrate or justice of the peace, yet never sought the solemnization of the relationship under the banner of any synagogue, church or mosque.
I’m saying there is already a precedent for recognizing the difference between a secular marriage and a Christian marriage. So what’s the big deal?
Regarding traditional heterosexual couples, individual Christian denominations and individual clerics serving those denominations already reserve the right to offer or withhold the rite (or sacrament) of holy matrimony. And there is an astonishing variability in practice. I know mainstream Protestant clergy who moonlight at various Las Vegas resorts, hotels and wedding chapels. Having barely been introduced to you, they’ll preside at your Vegas wedding as long as you have a marriage license in your possession.
On the other hand, Roman Catholics, Episcopalians and Orthodox clergy are known for a much tighter, stricter grasp on the sacrament, and require candidates for holy matrimony to move through formal requirements, classes and waiting periods.
I know individual clergy who, in certain extreme circumstances, will use their clerical authority to preside at holy matrimony even absent a marriage license. Like the time I led a dying hospice patient and his longtime domestic partner in marriage vows. As an obedient Anglo-Catholic, I reported this “irregular” act to my bishop. But I didn’t ask permission.
I’m saying that, with there already being such a variability amongst the branches of the Christian family tree (evangelical, mainstream Protestant, liturgical/Catholic, LDS), individual Christian Churches would then continue to practice what they see fit to practice regarding gay couples. They would be free, respectively, to include gay couples in religious solemnization or not. They would be free to say that any couple in possession of a domestic partnership license — gay or straight — also qualifies for holy matrimony. Or that only heterosexual couples qualify. They would be free to articulate a new and distinct theological understanding of gay covenant love, and to develop a liturgy for solemnizing same. Or not.
And the Westboro Baptist Church of Topeka, Kan., would be free to continue to hate homosexuals and to lawfully protest the funerals of folks whom God has killed because God is so upset about homosexuality.
We disagree, by the way, about marriage being “a wholly inorganic construct.” If it was, I don’t think it would be this powerful. My view here is Jungian — archetypal! Something in the collective consciousness of human beings compelled us, as early as Neanderthal, to contain sexuality, fertility and eventually family within symbol, rite and ceremony. Different cultures do it differently, but the need to do it is universal.
I’m saying that marriage and the marriage symbol are quintessentially organic.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry and the author of “Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing” (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or email@example.com.