Tuesday, July 26, 2005

As the Free State grapples with gay marriage...

Last night, a committee of New Hampshire legislators held an open hearing in Keene, NH, soliciting testimony as to how the state ought to deal with the issues of ‘civil unions’ or ‘gay marriage.’ An organized effort by both gay-rights groups and evangelical churches insured that the room was packed to overflowing, and that battle lines were drawn. Each speaker was limited to three minutes.

The discussion over the possibility of extending marital rights to other domestic partnerships was defined by positions which were mutually exclusive of each other. In addition, each of those positions also fell short of a solution to the many issue that were raised. No matter which ‘option’ is chosen – the current arrangement, gay marriage, or civil unions (as currently defined), someone loses and the arguments will continue.

On one hand, those who wish to maintain the current definition and rights inherent in heterosexual marriage saw attempts to change that as an attempt to change the social, cultural, political, and religious sensibilities to benefit a small minority. Those who would expand and those who would retain the current definition of marriage are asking the State to interfere in what is primarily an ecclesiastical rite. The fact that New Hampshire has chosen, like most states, to define marriage at all (even heterosexually) means that it has already stuck its toe into ecclesiastical waters.

At the same time, the development of a parallel universe of Vermont-style “civil unions,” as popularly conceived, is wholly inadequate. If it’s the exact same thing as marriage, then it is merely a semantic subterfuge. Regardless, it creates a ‘separate but equal’ status for gay couples, and still fails to address to rights, responsibilities, and needs of other households that are not based on sexual activity at all.

What I proposed last night tonight was a different approach that affords protection to all who seek it. What follows is part of that testimony:

“…I do not think that that State ought to have any role in defining the boundaries, purposes, or roles in marriage. Marriage is an Eccelesiastical sacrament, and should come under the purview of the Church and the Church alone - not the state, and not the Church-as-agent-of-the-State. When left to the Church, the sacrament maintains its integrity as a sacrament - not a tax status or organizational tool. If a Church wants to marry two gay men, so be it. If a Church wants to prohibit gay marriage and condemn homosexuality, so be it. Get the State out of the Churches entirely, and let them operate according to their own doctrine and consciences.

On the other hand, the State and society *does* have a vested interest in maintaining stable households. Throughout history, these households have taken many forms - and many of them have not been actively "sexual" at all. The "Mom-Dad-Kids" household is a recent product of the 1950s. Prior to that, households often included an aunt, a grandma, a neighbor's kid, etc. Colonial and pioneer families were more likely to be extended families - including those of no blood relationship whatsoever - than "nuclear" families. Between the Revolutionary and Civil Wars, the majority of marriages west of the Appalachians were common-law marriages that existed without formal state approval at all. Certainly, whenever such people make a commitment to each other, the state ought not to interfere. Rather, they ought to recognize and encourage the arrangement as a private contractual agreement to share rights and responsibilities. The application of intestacy statutes, hospital visitation rights and medical decisions, and responsibilities for debts incurred are normal and natural aspects of household life, and the state need not be in the business of deciding that some households should have those rights while others shouldn’t.

So what am I getting at?

1) Take Marriage away from the legislatures and the courts all together. Let the issue of marriage revert to being a sacrament administered by Ecclesiastical bodies alone, under their own rules without state interference or definitions.

2) Let the State acknowledge a new kind of Civil Union, which is based on Economic Stability, not sexual relations. Under such an arrangement, an elderly brother and sister (think of Marilla and Matthew in Anne of Green Gables) could just as easily be a "civil union" as a husband-wife couple, a single woman and her grandma, two gays, or two best friends who happened to live in a non-sexual house after retirement. Churches would grant marriage certificates under their own rules, and the State would issue Civil Union decrees which simply acknowledge the intent of people to live, love, and be responsible for each other, efficiently granting them a full set of rights in law.

In such a situation, The Church maintains the integrity of her Sacraments. The State recognizes - and grants security - to the many forms that households take. And, it all occurs without Christians or gays or secularists or social workers or politicians or anyone else using the State as a tool to impose a particular view of society.