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Monday, May 16, 2005

Legal Affairs Debate Club

The Debate Club looks promising this week: Should states abolish marriage?

In the first post, Mary Lyndon Shanley begins to construct her argument that, rather than simply provide civil marriage to same-sex couples, states should do away with "marriage" altogether and replace it with civil unions; "marriage" should be a term employed by religious groups.

This is something I've given a great deal of thought to.  I think that one of the reasons same-sex marriage is taboo for so much of the country is that marriage is still identified as a very religious institution.  There is something odd about the fact that being united in a church or synagogue is itself sufficient to confer a secular social status.  Are there any other civil functions akin to presiding at a wedding that can be performed by clergy? 

It is easy to see why, historically, marriage straddles the line between church and state.  But it is also easy to see that if we were designing the institution from scratch today, we'd probably come up with something entirely different.

In principle, therefore, I agree with Shanley.  Hers is even a solution that religious people could embrace (putting aside the current political tenor, which makes it impossible), for it reinforces the religious character of marriage.  Recall that one of the strongest arguments in favor of the general separation between church and state is that religion itself becomes corrupted when it is entwined with the state.

Alas, of course, this policy proposal is unlikely to win many adherents, for a variety of practical reasons.

I look forward to reading this Debate Club, and I'm particularly interested in seeing what Shanley has in mind for civil unions: to whom would they be available (e.g. just couples, or also groups), and how much would the rights and responsibilities associated with civil unions look like the rights and responsibilities currently associated with marriage?  In other words, are we just talking about a semantic change, or does she have in mind much larger reforms?

Posted by Hillel Levin on May 16, 2005 at 03:09 PM in Deliberation and voices | Permalink


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Actually, I know several deeply-religious people that wish that the state would get out of the business of regulating marriage. Most evangelical Christians believe that marriage can only be carried out if both parties believe in Christ and agree to base their marriage in Him. They tend to think that secular people devalue marriage, both because of same-sex marriage and because of the prevalance of secular divorce.

I agree with you, though, that the current political climate would make such an attempt almost laughably impossible. I don't think the leadership of the religious right would go along with these ideas. I think the political leadership of conservative evangelicals tends to believe that the government should impose their religious views on Americans...whereas evangelicals themselves are a little more careful about distinguishing between enforcing the morality of their religion on themselves and others...

Posted by: Jeff V. | May 16, 2005 6:59:51 PM

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