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May 14, 2012 1:52 pm

What if Government Recognized Only Civil Unions and Left Marriage to Religion?

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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Wedding rings. Photo: Jeff Belmonte

Could a governmental retreat from “marriage” finally heal the deep schism that has divided and immobilized this country by an intractable values volley over gay relationships?

As many of you have read, since running for Congress I have emphasized that I want to move away from the great social-sexual battles that this country has engaged in over the past forty- odd years, which in my opinion, has served to distract us from the real values challenges that confront us. The greatest threat to the future of the American family is not gay marriage but rather divorce.  However, because we obsess over gay marriage, we rarely ever hear the word divorce being uttered by political leaders.  Now, with President Obama coming out to support gay marriage and Mitt Romney continuing to assert his opposition to gay marriage by continuing to define marriage as a union that can only take place between one man and one woman, I propose a truce.

What if government withdrew from the marriage business altogether, and provided only Civil Unions to two consenting adults wishing to unify their lives, leaving the spirituality of the union to other entities to recognize, name, sanctify, and define?  These Civil Unions would equally assure that all couples receive all the legal entitlements that have previously been enjoyed by those who have been “married,” such as hospital visitation rights and end-of life decisions, insurance benefits,  and tax benefits.  After all, what business does the government have entering a church, synagogue or mosque to legitimize or define the spiritual nature of a person’s marriage?   We are supposed to have separation of church and state in America.

If the couple wishes to have their marriage consecrated to a more spiritual purpose, (e.g. “’til death do us part”, “for all eternity,”  “in the name of Jesus Christ,” “according to the laws of Moses and Israel,”  “in sickness and in health,” fidelity, loyalty etc.) they will choose to have a religious ceremony in addition to the civil ceremony.  This additional ceremony would extend beyond just having legal rights conferred by Civil Unions, and would reflect the couple’s individual spiritual or religious convictions.   They would go before a rabbi, a priest, a minister, or any other spiritual leader of their choice for a religious ceremony.  The ceremony, and in fact the semantic  definition of their union, would be defined by, and would be consistent with, that religious groups’ values.

This proposal might just allow nearly everyone to win, a “One Size Fits All”  solution to the gay marriage narrative that has hijacked the political landscape, created ever deepening divides in the nation, and has served to be only destructive and distracting from far greater social values issues facing this country.  The benefits to this proposal are, first and foremost, that no one would receive either preferential treatment or any discrimination when it comes to the government’s recognition of the legal rights of the union of any couple.  Furthermore, there would be no need to redefine marriage, as each group would have the authority to define or expand the meaning of their union according to their particular religious tradition.  This solution would reduce the role of government, which should not be involved in religious choices. People who want to have a spiritual component to their civil union can have whatever ceremony they desire within whatever religious context they choose, and name the union in spiritual terminology that best speaks to their religious convictions.

Far from harming religion, I believe that this change would even promote non-involved, non-religious people to entertain the concept of how religion can enhance and enrich one’s life, and be an invitation to engage in further religious learning, traditions, communities, and beliefs.  I think that when people are forced to confront the choice of wanting merely a government-recognized civil union before a Justice of the Peace which  addresses only  legal status issues, or the opportunity to imbue their union with a deeper, more eternal, spiritual dimension,  they would see the benefit of having something with greater holiness impact their union.   And they would be forced to confront the difference between a mere legal synthesis versus the a spiritual orchestration of two haves into one whole. In other words, once they are forced to start thinking about their “vows” they might just drift further into faith and religion.

The bottom line with this proposal is that we would remove the offense of those who can marry and those who cannot, the government would retreat further from our lives, and one of the great battles that have raged in America could be put behind us so that we can focus, finally, on curbing divorce, keeping husbands and wives together, and keeping kids out of custody battles rather than just always fighting about gay marriage.

I recognize that for those who oppose gay civil unions this would still not be a solution.  However, I vehemently disagree with their opposition.  Whom does it bother to have gay couples granted the decency to visit each other in hospital during serious illness, making end-of-life decisions, and receiving tax benefits as a couple?  Is it not worthwhile for us to put behind the questions of dual insurance coverage in order to have this terribly divisive issue finally settled?  By putting the gay marriage debate behind us we can finally focus on the real problem: straight people do not seem to either want to marry, and once they get married they find it difficult to remain married.

American marriage statistics tell a sad and increasingly grim story of the health of the marital institution that is at the heart of any healthy society and the national dialogue is currently unable to address the real roots of the unraveling of these unions because of the obsession of whether gay marriages are legal or legitimate.  USA Today recently reported that forty percent of all American women are single. Something in the region of seventy percent of African-American births, sixty percent of Latino births, and forty percent of white births, are out of wedlock. And as is well known, about one out of two marriages end in divorce.

As we ruminate in this detail, we lose the bigger picture that we need to focus on healing these unions, prevent families from breaking apart, and address the impotence of romantic love in our time.

Shmuley Boteach, “America’s Rabbi”, is the international best-selling author of 27 books and has just published the highly-acclaimed Kosher Jesus. He is currently running for Congress from New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District. Follow him on Twitter @RabbiShmuley. His website is

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  • There’s nothing better than watching a couple commit each others love to one another for eternity!

  • Craig R

    Nice thought and it’s one that’s been brought up before many times. Clear thinking people would think your proposal would be the perfect solution except for one little fact, the our opponents are just as opposed to LGBT couples having civil unions as they are to us having marriage. They oppose LGBT couples having ANY rights. They claim otherwise but their actions speak louder than their words. Just look at what has happened in Colorado over the last couple days, look how they fought civil unions everywhere it has come up in the states. There are plenty of examples, you just have to look.

  • Daniel Ressler

    A great idea, one I’ve been saying for a long time. The issue has two sides to it: a secular one and a religious one. The government cannot and should not force a definition of marriage on to a religion, but at the same time the federal and state governments cannot legalize discrimination against its citizens. Hence, separate out the secular benefits of marriage, reclassify all old marriages as civil unions in the eyes of the state, all new unions recognized by the government are civil, and then each religion or non-religion is allowed to perform what ever rite or ceremony that it desires. The Catholics and the Mormons can continue to deny marriage to homosexual couples, and the Episcopalians can perform marriage ceremonies to whomever they want.

    Problem solved, and then we can get back to things that are important to everyone regardless of their differences.

  • K. Buhler

    This proposal has some merits. Two obstacles for you to consider, Rabbi Shmuley:

    1. Historically, marriage (not just civil union) has been an issue of the state. See Rome, Byzantium, and China, for instance.

    2. If we give civil unions, with its tax breaks and other social benefits, to any sub-set of the society who is vocal and vociferous enough to demand it, we will have no way to deny it to any other vocal group.

    Without invalidating the totally valid subjective experience of practicing homosexuals, the only publicly-defensible stance is one supported by scientific and philosophical evidence. That evidence points to gayness being a some-time behavior, not an identity. Society cannot conform to the strong personal feelings of a tiny minority; we must go with the evidence. Hence, even civil unions would be a silly concession. Why not civil unions for artists? For a man and his widowed sister? For gardeners?

    • Jayne

      Creating the separation that you speak of should satisfy everyone in the gay marriage debate, Rabbi Shmuley – it is elegant and simple, it gives and takes from both sides. However, the conservative element in society is unlikely to accept your proposal. This is why the debate on marriage rights is not so trivial. You have on one side the GLBT, who want to be included in society, and on the other side conservative groups who want to exclude the GLBT community. It is a matter of irrational fear and hatred targeting one group in society under the auspices of religious dogma. These notions are changing, and it will not be long before all of those who opposed the inclusion of gays will be comparable to all those who opposed the civil rights movement of the 1960’s. Those who will fight this battle, and win inclusion, will not consider it a trivial issue and history will be on their side.

    • Daniel Ressler

      A) Historically, the church has been more involved in the state than it is in the US. So your first point is sort of irrelevant. We have made a clear separation to keep the government from acting like a religion. Since that’s the case, we should more supportive of Schumley’s idea – why hold on to historically irrelevant ideas?

      B) There are clear public welfare issues for supporting and encouraging unions between two people – which go beyond raising a family to the psychological welfare of the people. Relationships can combat depression, give economic support and stability. Being in a relationship is a prevalent human urge, and supporting that can only improve the polis. And there is no reason to deny rights to any subset of the population, so I don’t understand your concern.

      C) Unless of course your concern is that ‘gayness’ is not a true demographic population, but some people who sometimes have sex with people of the same gender. Then I see that you are just wrong. I won’t deny that some people experiment briefly and then move on, but for others it is a defining aspect of their individuality. They are only attracted to people of the same gender, and that remains throughout their entire life. The science is far from conclusive on this issue, and even if the science does eventually point to this being a choice, who is the government to say that that choice is right or wrong, if all parties involved are consenting?