Sunday, March 15, 2009

YES on a new word for civil marriage

Of all the ways the marriage equality movement has gone wrong, none bothers me more than its position that the word "marriage" must be preserved in civil law. The California Supreme Court squarely framed the issue when it asked the parties in last year's marriage litigation whether the state could eliminate the word marriage for everyone. The state said it could. The gay rights groups and the anti-gay groups said no.

I support marriage for same-sex couples as a matter of equality. But I think replacing the term for all couples with something far less laden with negative baggage is the best result of all. (My candidate is civil partnership.) Many states, including California, no longer have divorce. They have dissolutions. The negative connotation of divorce has been replaced by a modern term, and we need to do the same for marriage.

So imagine my dismay when the supplemental brief filed by the gay rights groups read as an ode to marriage as something of “majestic status” that provides a “unique quality of intimacy and emotional connection,” “unique public validation,” and “unique ability to bind two people in a distinct relationship of love and mutual commitment that is central to personal identity.”

The brief quoted approvingly from prior cases the language that “the structure of society itself largely depends upon the institution of marriage” and that marriage is “the basic unit of society.” This overlooks the many ways in LGBT (and straight) people form families and relationships. It is the rhetoric of the right-wing marriage movement. I don't want it used in my name.

The matter of equality for gay and straight couples using a word other than "marriage" also came up in the recent oral arguments on the validity of Prop 8. Once again, no support for this from the gay rights groups. But Georgetown law prof Nan Hunter, founder of the ACLU Lesbian and Gay Rights Project, is with me on this one.

And for an alternative vision, there's always the 2006 "Beyond Marriage" statement.


Unknown said...

Right on! I wish more people consider replacing the word. I've been spreading the "Beyond Marriage" statement since its appearance.

I can't say it was exactly hard for me to come to support marriage for same-sex couples, but I did have to deal with a lot of feminist and leftist critiques of the institution I had internalized over the years, critiques which are still tremendously relevant for me.

I was wondering, though, from a legal perspective what would happen if a state were to replace the word marriage for civil partnership (I like this term too!)? Would the federal government still recognize a state's civil partnerships for the purposes of federal rights and benefits? How would a state's civil partnership laws mesh with federal marriage laws?

Nancy Polikoff said...

States that have replaced the word "divorce" with "dissolution" do not seem to have confused other states or the federal government of the legal significance of those words. I think the same would apply to changing the word for marriage. The legislation making the change could make this clear. If there were to be a problem on the federal level, I think the pressure from heterosexuals to have the legal status of a married couple would ensure that any necessary changes to federal law would be made.

Stevi said...

I just stumbled across this randomly, and am so glad I did! I agree that the best way to resolve this issue is for the government to get out of the marriage business. Let civil partnerships be the legal term, and let marriage be a matter of religion alone.

If people wish to have legal rights and benefits, they enter into a civil partnership. If they also wish to have religious recognition of their relationship, let them go to their place of worship for marriage. Each denomination can then set it's own standards of who they will marry and issue it's own marriage certificates, but it will not effect how people recieve the legal benefits of civil partnership.

For the record, I'm a married hetero Christian, and I would have no problem with changing the legal term to civil partnership. To me, when I took my signed marriage license to the county recorder, that was the civil partnership, getting the government's recognition of my relationship with my husband. The ceremony with my pastor, friends & family was a religious ceremony, for the purpose of making vows before God and witnesses about how I would live out this relationship. Two completely separate things in my eyes.

If couples want to make a legally binding partnership, they should have every right to, regardless of whether they are a man and a woman or two of the same sex.