John Shields

Marriage vs Civil Unions

Filed By John Shields | March 29, 2009 1:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living, Living, Marriage Equality, Politics, The Movement

In December 2008 I wrote an editorial in the Washington Blade on the subject of same-sex marriage, arguing that what we really want is equal rights, so why are we fighting over the single word "marriage." The comments, letters and emails responding to my call for civil unions for everyone - straight or gay - went from "absolutely," to "separate but equal never works," to "marriage is a religious matter, take the state out of it."

My call for dropping the fight over the word "marriage" is more than simply a defeatist stance, it is what I consider a more reasoned approach to the long-term implications of the separation of church and state and freedom of - and from - religion.

In a strange shift in the space-time continuum, both sides in the Proposition 8 arguments before the California Supreme Court in early March 2009 agreed with me. And recently, Time Magazine published an article titled A Gay Marriage Solution: End Marriage? in which the author argued for civil unions for all, and getting the government out of what is basically a religious matter.

It's been months since the "enlightened" voters of California disappointed not just the LGBTQ community - but the entire planet - in their ignorant attempt to define a single word. And to take away - for the first time in the history of the United States - a civil right as opposed to expand rights.

Thumbnail image for CA Supreme Court gavel.jpgBut they did, and the California Supreme Court appears poised to uphold Proposition 8. Thankfully, however, without retroactively dismissing the 18,000 same-sex marriages performed before the hateful Proposition 8 was approved by state voters.

This has to stop. This war of words between "straight marriage" and "gay marriage" must end, as this particular elephant is sucking the air out of nearly every other issue the LGBTQ community is fighting for in nearly every corner of our country. From hate crimes, to ENDA, to the repeal of Don't Ask Don't Tell legislation pending before the U.S. Congress - it is time to get off the "marriage" train, and get onboard the Equal Rights train.

In my Washington Blade editorial, I argued that it was all about nomenclature. I believed then, as I believe now, that the United States of America should pivot to civil unions for all, regardless of gender or sexual orientation. I argued then, as I do now, that the separation of church and state - enshrined in the American Constitution - demands that we separate the church from what should be a civic matter. Civil unions for all, and then you can (if you so desire) head to your house of worship and "enshrine" your love and commitment in any manner you and your partner so desire.

Marriage as an institution has evolved over centuries, at times being a legal institution and at times a religious sacrament. In many countries, the legal rights of marriage are administered by the state. Holy matrimony, a religious sacrament is administered by the church. In the good ole' U.S of A., we've fused the two concepts in a manner so that most people can't talk about one without the other. [email protected]#K changing the various religions - God knows they have [email protected]#ked us enough - but if two individuals seek a legally recognized union in the eyes of the state, that should be a matter for the state. Not the church.

This is not about separate but equal, it's about equal rights. It is very common in Europe, as well as other so-called "developing nations," to separate civil unions from "holy matrimony." All I'm saying is it IS time to check the tires and take the air out of the frikkin' word "marriage." Give my partner and myself equal rights now and I'll be happy to let religion manage rights in the afterlife.

In one of the most striking portions of the arguments before the California Supreme Court on Proposition 8, both sides agreed that the state could resolve the equal protection issue of same-sex marriage by taking the state out of the marriage business.

An attorney arguing for overturning Proposition Hate, Michael Maroko, said; "If you're in the marriage business, do it equally. And if you're not going to do it equally, get out of the business."

Thumbnail image for kenneth starr.jpgEven Kenneth Starr, the Pepperdine law dean and former Whitewater independent counsel who argued in favor of Propositon 8, agreed that it may solve the legal issues, although he said it was a solution that lies outside the legal authority of the court.

Likewise, the author of the Time Magazine article points to a paper published by two legal scholars from Pepperdine University (not necessarily the most conservative of universities, but rather close) calling for the government to re-examine its role in marriage.

In one of my favorite quotes from the Time article, the author succinctly states the following:

Instead, give gay and straight couples alike the same license, a certificate confirming them as a family, and call it a civil union -- anything, really, other than marriage. For people who feel the word marriage is important, the next stop after the courthouse could be the church, where they could bless their union with all the religious ceremony they wanted.


In 1996 the Hawaiian Supreme Court found the statute disallowing same-sex marriage unconstitutional, prompted a voter-approved state constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and woman. That case also led to enactment of the Defense of Marriage Act, signed by then-President Clinton that same year.

What has followed has been a steady erosion of gay rights in nearly every state in the union. From the eastern seaboard to what we once thought were the "enlightened voters" of the West Coast - American voters have overwhelmingly said, through legislatures as well as through voter initiatives, that "marriage" means one thing - "between a man and a woman."

If we are fighting over equal rights, then no time is as good as the present. If we are, however, fighting over a single word, then it's time to shed ourselves of that constraint, and move the conversation forward.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for grabbing either a torch or a lamp to gain equal rights, although I have to admit I prefer the lamp of enlightenment over the fierce nature of fire.

It is time to stop focusing on a single word that empowers our enemies while disabling us, as well as our friends and allies. It is time to get rid of the polarizing words "sanctity" and "marriage." It is time to aim for what we want, which is civil, legal unions for everyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation.

By letting go of the term "marriage" -- and the battles being waged over it -- we will win our war for equal rights for everyone in a shorter amount of time.

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I totally agree with John Shields! It is no wonder that there are difficulties in many States in getting a committed same-sex relationship recognised, though a couple of States have managed to pass same-sex marriage legislation. Frankly, I don't see what the 'hang-up' is when any State wants to bring-in same-sex unions or partnerships. It is not the 'name' that is vital, it is the benefits that matter. I do not buy this "it ain't equality is it's not called marriage' stuff! The important thing is the rights that go with a partnership or union.

When he was UK Prime Minister, Tony Blair, who is the one PM that swept-away all 'anti-gay' legislation (some laws going back centuries), wanted to introduce civil marriage for same-sex couples. It was the UK's major LGBT advocacy group that came up with the terminology 'Civil Partnership'. The important thing about UK Civil Partnerships is that all the rights and obligations are exactly the same for same-sex couples as they are for heterosexuals who have a civil marriage. The only one major difference (apart from the gender differences) is that a Civil Partnership cannot be "registered in a place of worship". But this does not mean that a Civil Partnership cannot be "blessed" in a church, if a minister is willing. There are a couple of differences because of ancient aspects that still remain the our marriage acts - and these are to do with 'procreation', which is impossible with same-sex couples.

For most gay men and women here, Civil Partnerships are totally acceptable. They have all the rights and responsibilites of a (heterosexual) married couple. The equality even goes as far as to legally allow a same-sex couple to adopt (as a couple) - and there are not many countries where this is the case!

If the USA took the line that the UK (and New Zealand) did, then there might be most States emabracing a legal framework for same-sex couples, and who knows there might be Federal recognition as well. It was no less than the then President George W. Bush who, when appearing on breakfast television a few days before the 2004 general election, said in reply to a question on gay marriage that while he was against it, he was not against civil unions for same-sex couples. No one in America, it seems, was listening.

It would be a good start for the gay community in America to go for civil unions (or any other word) as it distances itself from 'marriage', a word that has been totally highjacked by the religious community. Remember that there was no such thing as religious marriage in the USA when the Europeans (mainly Dutch and English) first arrived. To them, in the early days, marriage was purely a civil matter.

To totally repeal civil marriage for opposite-sex couples and replace it with civil unions in 50 States would take years, I would have thought. So, the gay community could lead the way and accept civil unions, and then heterosexuals would eventually follow suit.

Michael Crawford Michael Crawford | March 30, 2009 10:09 PM

John, you know I love you, but I could not disagree with you more. I am not willing to ask same-sex couples to abandon the fight for marriage equality in order to fight for some pie in the sky idea of civil unions for everyone.

John Shields John Shields | March 30, 2009 10:21 PM

The vote is closer than I thought it would be, follow up piece coming later this week. And I love you too.

Now, time for UFC~! It's really the cute guys, wrestling and the occasional jock shot.

But I digress...

This is a nice idea, but I don't think it'll happen.

But I do think there are other laws - repealing DADT, getting anti-discrimination legislation for all of us all over the country, educating educators to help LGBT students in school, etc. - that could make it easier to move the later debates forward. Going for marriage seems to be putting the cart before the horse.

Of course, like I said on the poll post, what's wrong with both civil unions and marriage for everyone? Have a literally two-tiered system, because relationships aren't all equal. Sometimes people aren't ready for a marriage, or don't ever want to get married, but still need the protections that a middle-road option like civil unions could provide.

Straight couples would thank us later.