This is a repost of an article I wrote for k5 awhile back. Since I've separated myself from k5, I decided to repost it here.
Same sex unions are being debated in the US, with gay rights activists seeking full equality for their unions and conservative groups seeking to halt any attempt to alter the status quo. The crux of the problem is that economic issues are being bound to religious positions, where it is winner take all. This article explores the possibility of finding a compromise that at least minimally satisfies each side in the debate.
Gay rights activists have steadily gained ground in their attempts to legitimize same sex relationships in the eyes of the law in the United States, claiming they are due the same opportunities granted to heterosexual couples. Relatively recent gains include the granting of insurance privileges for partners of gay employees at several corporations and local municipalities. With equal fervor, though perhaps with less success, other groups, primarily associated with fundamentalist Christianity, have attempted to block any such legalization, hoping to maintain the status quo which also happens to fit neatly with their particular world view. The problem is that what is being debated suffers from a mismatch at the fundamental base of each group's arguments.
Marriage today has two faces or reasons for occurring. The first motivation for most couples to marry is social, a desire to formalize an arrangement where they can be recognized as a couple. Gays desire this right as well, again wishing to receive social sanction for emotions and desires they feel that are just as real as those between a couple of opposite sex. This function of marriage has at its root a religious basis. A second function is resource pooling, or economic benefit. Bear in mind I am concerning myself with society in the US as it stands today. In the past, in other places and times, couples may have been together primarily for survival, but today in the US at least, that isn't the problem, though from a financial perspective, it might come under discussion, depending on the couple in question.
Those who argue for the right to enjoy same sex unions on par with hetero unions typically argue from an economic or political perspective. Currently, a married couple receives benefits not available to same sex partners. One such benefit was and primarily remains insurance benefits granted to a spouse through the employer. This particular benefit has recently been granted to "partners" in a few cases and might have a chance to receive widespread adoption in the corporate and government sectors. This is a reasonable concern. Why should a couple desiring the same legal relationship as another couple be denied the same privileges as the other couple. Why should it matter if one couple is two men while the other couple is a man and a woman? In this regard, "marriage" is simply a contract, by which the partners can be considered a single entity for taxation purposes, are held mutually accountable for debt collection, may automatically act on behalf of the other in cases where legal action is necessary but no power of attorney has been explicitly granted, etc. Likewise, having bound themselves like this, it would seem reasonable to request the same benefits as other couples who have undergone this binding, again regardless of the gender of the couple's partners.
On the other hand, those who argue for the status quo talk about the "sanctity" of marriage. They wish marriage to remain as it has always been defined, the union of a man and a woman. They call it immoral, and this is reasonable given that the crux of their argument hangs on the moral definitions laid down by religious institutions which have the right to dictate what is moral and what is not for its members. The idea of social acceptance being granted to a couple, in opposition to what that society deems acceptable should be anathema to those who value the freedoms this country espouses. As a Christian, I should have the right to consider two men cohabitating as not being married, regardless of what the state may say. And I would be right. As a Christian, I would not be interested in the necessary economic ramifications of what they have done. I simply don't want to acknowledge their marriage. More importantly, even if the state dictated they were married, it would in no way affect how I view them, except to serve as a slap in the face to me and what I hold dear.
The problem is that those who wish to give same sex unions the same name as traditional unions are not only seeking economic equality but social acceptance and they are doing it through legal and political means. While economic equality can be so achieved (perhaps debatable given the civil rights record), social acceptance simply can not be legislated. Mind you, I said social acceptance, not social equality. Blacks achieved social equality, but social acceptance came later. Furthermore, in this case, I don't think it is right to try to force social acceptance in this case. If tolerance is the rallying cry, then tolerate those who diametrically oppose your point of view.
Likewise, those who wish to void out the term marriage when considering same sex unions not only wish to formalize the social rejection, but wish also to reject the economic benefits for same sex unions that are available to hetero unions. Yet, by doing this, they likely will lose their fight to retain their social distinctions in the law. Regardless of any stigma possibly attached to being gay, public opinion will not long tolerate this particular imbalance. And if, as I suspect, this is a losing battle for the fundamental Christians, tying the social aspect so tightly to the economic and political aspect will only result in losing both battles.
It would seem that the most reasonable approach would be to force the two concepts apart and let each stand on its merits. First, eradicate references to the concept of marriage from the laws. Marriage is already covered by the religious protections afforded by the Bill of Rights and need not be granted any special status. Second, a formal concept should be introduced for those wishing to gain the economic benefits currently afforded to married couples. Call it an M-Corp, similar to C-Corp and S-Corp already defined by law. It would effectively grant all of the financial and legal rights and obligations currently afforded to married couples to those who entered into it. How it is defined would be determined in the same manner that C-Corp and S-Corp corporations are defined, presumably at the state level. Third, grandfather in existing marriages into the new M-Corp. New M-Corps should be able to be instituted with no more difficulty than current marriages are. Fourth, no longer accept religious ceremonies as legally binding. There is no point in creating the new corporation if there is still a link between church and state.
Unfortunately, gay rights activists would bemoan the change in status. They would gain the rights, but lose the social acceptance, which perhaps some want more than the benefits. However, social acceptance simply will not come without time. And a legal remedy such as is being sought today will not bring them any closer to this goal. Likewise, religious purists will dislike the lack of recognition their ceremony would now hold. Here, it is simpler. Already they are not required to perform a ceremony to satisfy legal requirements, and their adherents are already required to have the ceremony performed in order to satisfy religious codes, where applicable. So little would change.
In summary, this is a problem with a viable solution, but one that is unlikely to be adopted for the simple reason that both sides want desperately to win the battle on all fronts. Unfortunately, the fronts have changed, shifted with the social changes experienced in the last decades, and while some things have changed, with expanded rights for gays, others have stayed the same, with pro-hetero groups still able to sway public opinion on certain issues. Perhaps eventually the issue will be moot, but for now, this seems the ideal solution.