A Moderate Path on Same-Sex Marriage

One of the challenges of moderate politics is to find creative solutions that will appeal to (or at least resolve the concerns of) those on either end of the political spectrum. This is particularly true for those seemingly binary issues that so easily divide us.

Here is what I think we should do about one such issue: same-sex marriage. Liberals tend to see it as the next step in a long fight over civil rights. Conservatives see it as an imposition by the government in contradiction to their deeply held moral beliefs. Both sides take for granted that the government will establish a uniform definition of marriage with universal legal applicability.

But why should it? Why should the government be responsible for defining marriage in the first place?

Imagine instead that government (federal or state) limited itself to defining civil unions: legally recognized partnerships between two consenting adults conferring certain rights. This status could be legally conferred on couples in a non-discriminatory manner without respect to gender or sexual orientation.

Marriage would cease to be a legal designation, becoming instead a cultural, religious, or traditional term open to interpretation. Religious organizations could perform marriages for qualified individuals according to internal standards and doctrine without outside coercion from the government, just as they can now set their own standards for individuals desiring baptism or other sacred rites. They could in turn limit religious opportunities to those who had been married according to their standards.

Of course, there would remain legal issues to be worked out. But separating what the state grants (civil unions) from what religious organizations choose to grant (marriages) would allow for a simpler separation of church and state. It may mean that churches have to give up some public functions, since the government has a responsibility to ensure that any activity which it co-sponsors treats everyone equally before the law. But the churches would gain greater protection in their own sphere under the first amendment because marriage could be legally recognized as a religious institution rather than the hybrid civil-religious institution we have now.

This solution probably is not ideal for either liberals or conservatives. But both groups would achieve their central stated priorities. Same-sex couples would receive equality before the law. Conservatives would gain the preservation of traditional marriage and religious freedom. The change would also further two central goals of moderate politics: First, diffusing an all-or-nothing, high-stakes, binary political conflict that has contributed to the polarization of our contemporary political atmosphere. Second, strengthening fundamental American values of (religious) freedom and equality.

What do you think of this proposed solution? If it’s not ideal from your perspective, could you embrace it as a starting point?

4 Responses to A Moderate Path on Same-Sex Marriage
  1. Emily Snyder Collins
    January 31, 2012 | 4:34 pm

    I really like this idea in principle, though I think that implementing it would be very difficult and would ruffle a lot of feathers along the way. Aren’t the roots of marriage religious, and if so, how is it that marriage has become so deeply entwined with law in a country that is supposed to hold separate church and state? When looking at it from this perspective, it seems obvious that the religious institution of marriage should not be responsible for affording legal rights to husbands, wives, or other partners. People will dig in their heels about change though, you know they will.

    Sadly, I think that we are at the point at which “all or nothing” is a probability, but I don’t think that means we shouldn’t strive for better. Maybe we can take a few steps backward to reassess the situation and try to find a path that is a little more accommodating to all.

  2. Courtney!
    January 31, 2012 | 5:57 pm

    I think you’re onto something here. A short term solution in the ongoing battle of who gets to get married today.

    Except that it is the word “marriage” that is important. It’s why the right won’t give it up and the left wants it. If words were not important they wouldn’t be bleeped on the TV. And the right wouldn’t care about giving it up.

    It’s the difference between a degree from an “accredited” university and one that isn’t. That word matters. Even if the classes and the teachers are the same.

    It would be delightful if tomorrow all loving couples could be civily unified. But women and fabulous men haven’t been planning their “civil union” since they were knee high to a grasshopper.

    So, yes, that would be lovely but we’re not done yet.

  3. Jacob Morgan
    January 31, 2012 | 6:31 pm

    I absolutely agree 100%. I’ve had some debates about this exact approach with quite a few conservatives, and you are correct that this would ruffle feathers on that side, but at the end of the day you are absolutely correct.

    I think you frame the argument very well, particularly in your fifth paragraph. Conservatives so frequently fall back on the ‘slippery slope’ argument that they don’t consider possibilities that could work. I wasn’t able to articulate this idea clearly, I would be curious to see a conservative’s response to your reasoning.

    Fantastic article! Maybe you should look into becoming a libertarian (ha) – they use a similar argument for most social and fiscal issues.

  4. Jason
    February 1, 2012 | 4:27 pm

    Emily: I agree that this would be an uphill fight, but I think there’s at least more potential to convince those on either side than the current binary fight over state definitions of “marriage.”

    Courtney: I think you’re right that words matter, though part of the point of this solution is that those uncomfortable with “gay marriage” can continue to define “marriage” as they see fit for their purposes. That would include whatever grand wedding ceremony they’d been dreaming of since childhood. I don’t know anyone whose dream of that perfect wedding explicitly included the hand of the state. [More on this in a coming post.]

    Jacob: I’ve long thought that one of the lost opportunities of the current partisan split is diminished cooperation between liberals and libertarians. They don’t see eye to eye on many government spending and regulation issues, but they share many concerns on civil liberties. But the partisan divide tends to discourage productive cooperation in those areas. Here’s one area where such cooperation would be very productive.