Marc Fisher has a column this morning asking why Marion Berry and Barack Obama seem to be dragging their feet on gay marriage. The problem I see is the definition of gay marriage.
In 1996, Barack Obama responded to a Chicago newspaper’s questions about the issue with these words: "I favor legalizing same-sex marriages, and would fight efforts to prohibit such marriages."
Yet during his presidential campaign and on to today, the president has said his religious faith leads him to oppose same-sex marriage (he favors civil unions for homosexual couples).
I don’t know what the difference is between a gay marriage and a gay civil union. If you argue that marriage is a religious sacrament, I don’t think anyone is arguing that churches must marry whoever asks. Pastors are always free to say no and often do to straight couples for a variety of reasons.
(When I was planning to be married for the second time and wanted to ensure that our future children could be baptized in the Catholic Church, my wife and I met with a nun of a church. When we both told her we were married before, she gave a grave “Hmmmm,” and when my wife told her that her previous husband was a Jew, the nun gave a louder “Hmmmm” with a wrinkle brow thrown in. But the church relented.)
I asked a leader in the gay rights movement in Virginia about this, and he seemed to agree that this debate is obfuscated by terminology.
This question would be less confusing if we had not yoked civil marriage to the religious sacrament of marriage: We empower ministers, etc. to simultaneously perform the duties of religious officiant and agent of the state, and then refer to both institutions by the same word. In fact, a civil marriage is a civil union. A religious marriage is whatever a given religious community wants it to be, regardless of whether it’s civilly recognized.
Indeed, my second wife and I were married by a judge. Therefore, I guess we’re not married, but “civil unioned.” And I’ll bet that union would not prevent us from exercising our full rights as a “married” couple.
It seems this semantic dance we’re doing is silly, unless there is something I don’t understand about the difference between a civil union and a marriage.