In watching the debate over same sex marriage now occurring in both our churches and in our politics, it has struck me that we often equate the two. That is, we too often jump to the conclusion that our religious views on marriage are, and should be, incorporated into our civil law (and vice versa). In most cases, we don't think much about the issue--we use the word "marriage" as if its civil and religious meaning were the same.
This, of course, is not true, and has not been true in our secular society for many years. I thin that this point was made very well in a recent post by Scottiology:
A couple in my church had started to date. Movies, dinner, platonic stuff. Here’s the problem: he was married. He had been separated from his wife for three years; his ex-wife, who had started the divorce proceedings, was living with another man; and the divorce was pretty much finalized they were just waiting for a couple of clarifications from child services, in fact, they were several months past a court date when they were first told by the court they were divorced. A couple of board members were scandalized. How could he date someone when he was still married. In discussing this a board member made the statement, “The divorce is not final until the government says its final.”
So I asked a question, “Lets say a couple comes to our church and they have lived together for a couple of years are we going to recognize them as married?” The man answered me, “No, they are living in sin.” I said, “Well the government says they’re married. When a couple live together for a period of one year they are considered common-law married by the government. Their assets would be separated equally as if they had been “married.” So answer me if a divorce can only be ended by the government don’t we then have to recognize a marriage started by the government?” The man had no answer because he didn’t see the hole in his argument. He viewed marriage as a legal contract with the authority of the government making it important. Even sadder, as leader in the church, he had no concern for their dating procedure, or even any thoughts on what proper Christian dating looked like. I think that we should have higher view of marriage than this in the church.
Primarily what the government is proposing with gay “marriage” is a legal contract. A way to protect the assets of both persons entering the contract. Something that should not concern or worry the church. It also allows some partners to receive medical benefits. Again something that should not concern the church. But here’s the problem this is also how Christians and the church are treating “marriage.” Just a contract that is increasingly being enacted for its out clause. As an example of our “high standard” of marriage and our views on the “sanctity” of marriage many studies suggest that Christian divorce rates are currently the same as non-Christians.
Read it all here.
I think his point is an important one--to most Christian denominations, marriage is more than a mere legal contract--it is a commitment, and a covenant, but one that means more than a mere legal obligation. It is also, in many denominations, a sacrament. It is no surprise, therefore, that same sex marriage is an issue that is dividing many denominaions.
Sadly, however, we ignore the fact that in our civil law, marriage is a legal obligation, and in evaluating the public policy issue of civil unions or same sex partnerships, it is a mistake to impose religious views about marriage on the secular law.
One of the most important results of a marriage is that if there is a divorce, the state plays a decisive role in deciding the future of the children. The state makes its decision based not on the wishes of the parents, but the best interests of the children. I find it deeply ironic that "family values" crusaders want to deny children of gay and lesbian couples this same right to have their interests taken into account. Yet, absent some status for same sex couples, generally only one member of the couple is viewed as a parent, and if there is a separation, this sole parent has the absolute right to determine the future of the child--and the best interests of the child get no hearing.
And we provide benefits to a married couple--such as health care decisionmaking authority, tax benefits, and the like--because we recognize that a family is a single unit and society is better off if we encourage its stability. Doesn't society benefit from a stable family headed by a same sex couple? How is the "sanctity of marriage" protected when the children in that family cannot have access to the health care provided to the "wrong" parent? How is it "protecting the family" when a family headed by a same sex couple has no access to survivor benefits when one parent dies?
Yes, yes, I know that there legions of studies that show that children raised with both a mother and a father do better than children raised in the home of a single parent. Yet , these studies are irrelevant: they compare families with opposite-sex parents to single-parent families, not with those headed by same-sex parents. These studies have nothing to do with whether a father and father or mother and mother do a worse job than a mother and a father.
Each religious denomination will need to make its own decisions about who it will marry and who it will not. I suspect that within a decade most of the mainline denominations will provide same sex marriage ceremonies. I also suspect that most Evangelical denominations and the Roman Catholic Church will not do so in my life time.
We cannot, however, allow our diverse religious views of marriage and the ethics of sexuality govern our secular institutions, and I have yet to hear a cogent argument against civil unions or same sex marriages that is based on secular reasoning.