The State and the Union

In April, Vermont and Iowa effectively legalized gay marriage. State courts and legislatures are hotly debating a number of civil rights issues for gays and lesbians. My own interest was piqued when I heard that my home state of California passed Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to ban same-sex marriage; the amendment is now being challenged before the California Supreme Court.

So when I received an invitation in February to a public hearing about Hawaii’s House Bill 444—which would have extended the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities of spouses in a marriage to partners in a civil union—I enthusiastically clicked “will attend.” It seems to me that civil unions—renaming a legally recognized intimate relationship to allow religious institutions to retain their hold on the title “marriage”—could be a decent compromise in the eyes of the law.

I am not certain that I even support the government’s jurisdiction in such intimate spiritual matters as marriage to begin with. I’m not the only one: In March, two law professors at Pepperdine, a Christian university in Malibu, wrote an open letter to California’s court urging it to settle the Proposition 8 fracas by simply getting the state out of the marriage recognition business entirely, using the term “civil unions” for government recognition of partnerships, straight or gay.

“Marriage is of religious origin; it should remain there,” wrote Douglas W. Kmiec, who voted for Proposition 8, and Shelley Ross Saxer, who voted against it. (Their boss, Pepperdine law dean Kenneth Starr, who defended Proposition 8 before the state high court, argues that Kmiec and Saxer’s solution is outside the court’s power.) Thinking along the same lines, two southern California students started a grassroots campaign to get a proposition on California’s 2010 ballot replacing the word “marriage” with “domestic partnership” in all state law.

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Sojourners Magazine June 2009
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