September 1, 2009

Civil Unions for All Means All Under the Government

Justin Katz

Dan Yorke hosted an interesting conversation this afternoon on WPRO regarding the manufactured controversy over Governor Carcieri's plans to speak at an event hosted by the Massachusetts Family Institute. I've asked Dan to post the audio of his interview with Susan Heroux on his PodCast page, and I'm hoping to procure the audio of my subsequent phone conversation with him.

But while that's all in the works, it's worth responding to something suggested by a regular caller to WPRO, and pretty much weekly star of Matt Allen's open-line hour on Fridays before the Violent Roundtable (although I confess that my ineptitude with names leaves me unable to provide his). Being of the more libertarian conservative school of thought, he raised the suggestion that the government should offer only civil unions, with citizens free to sanctify their unions however they wish.

The essential problem with eliminating civil recognition of marriage in favor of universal civil unions is that a civil union is something granted by the government, while marriage entails the government's recognition of something that transcends itself. Marriage, that is, is prior to government; that's why it's a civil right; that's why it is evil for the government to dictate that, for example, black folks can't marry white folks. Civil unions would, by definition, be manipulable.

It's important for government to recognize marriage, as traditionally understood, because households built around intimate male-female relationships tend toward the creation of new life in an inviolable family unit. Again, this transcends government. Homosexual households are not equivalent because they must procure children by some means external to the relationship, and one way or another, that process already involves — requires — government regulation (as with adoption).

It should be noted, of course, that our freedom to associate with each other also transcends government (and ought to do so more), so homosexual relationships between adults are inviolable by that mechanism, in concert with a variety of other relationship types.

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The argument to eliminate government sanctioned “marriage” in favor of civil unions is an interesting one. I don’t really agree with your argument because I don’t see the inherent value of the governments’ involvement with recognizing certain types of relationships because they tend toward procreation while others do not. But your point that “marriage” preceded government and law is relevant to me. Does the value of including gay couples in the fold to legally recognized marriage trump the changing of the definition of marriage, which predates government? Can we have two definitions of “marriage” – the legally recognized one and the traditional one?

We do have freedom to associate. The reality is that there are couples who are known as “married” that are not legally recognized – some same-sex, some polygamists and possibly other types of relationships. I cannot see how some have come to the conclusion that the current definition of marriage is ‘unconstitutional’. But I can see legitimacy to the argument that legal recognition of an intimate relationship be granted to same-sex couples. It’s the significant change to the definition of a word that predates and transcends law that bothers me.

Posted by: msteven at September 1, 2009 8:31 PM

Sorry, our government itself was founded on Judao-Christian principles and neither allows for same sex marriages.

If gays want to marry under the same subset of principles, let them buy some land and start their own country with their own Constitution.

Whether unions are called civil or universal, it doesn't matter to me as long as they aren't considered equal to marriage.

Posted by: Roland at September 1, 2009 9:51 PM

Justin, without restarting the entire debate from scratch again, I'll draw attention to just one of the false elements of your usual argument.

You speak of government recognizing traditional marriage and its creation of "an inviolable family unit." It does no such thing. If marriage under the law adhered to "traditional" principles (which I note in your case seems to equate with "Catholic" principles), then the law would not permit divorce and remarriage.

I eagerly await the right's new fervor for a ban on divorce. It seems that if divorce severs 50% of the new marriages started in this country -- a far, far greater number than any theoretical number of gay marriages if legalized in every state -- then the right should begin the crusade to protect "traditional" marriage there.

That would be your crusade if you really believed that the marriage debate is about government policies that support the traditional concept of marriage. And what better way to support kids being raised in two-parent households? All your policy arguments fit this new crusade perfectly.

And yeah, I've heard your lame exscuses about supporting tougher divorce laws, etc. etc. But where's the fervor? The call for an outright ban? Maybe even an amendment to the US constitution?

The answer is plain as day. It's simply much more convenient to bash the gays than to tell good ol' Charlie your neighbor that he can't get a divorce and marry his secretary. Behind the right's crusade on this issue is a very dark and hypocritical core.

As an aside, I find the definitional creep in the arguments used by the right in this debate hilarious. No longer will you see a conservative talk about heterosexual marriages as the only kind that create new life. Of course, because they don't always do that. Now it's about relationships that "tend toward" the creation of new life. Keep defining your problem away there.

Posted by: Pragmatist at September 1, 2009 10:39 PM

I will not, repeat, will not, make any wiseguy remarks about Carcieri positioning himself as a champion of traditional values in the footsteps of Mark Sanford, John Ensign and David Vitter (we all know The Don's no Larry Craig), and I will not support anyone who goes there in pursuit of a cheap laugh. As Bush 41 would say, not gah do it.
Seriously, I think he took this on as a form of appeasement to Bishop Tobin, since the immigration panel has made news this week and served as a reminder of one area where The Don and the Man with the Mitre disagree. Not that those who follow Tobin's lead on gay marriage will follow it on immigration, of course.

Posted by: rhody at September 2, 2009 12:20 AM


Your smarm notwithstanding, my argument has been pretty much the same since I formed it in 2001.

It is, frankly, laughable that you claim my characterization of marriages as prior to and transcending government to be false because the government recognizes their cessation. Not surprisingly, your view is that the government is the grantor of our rights.

Your references to "fervor" are similarly a cheap ploy. For nearly a decade, now, a politically powerful movement has been trying — with the help of the media and the judiciary — to change the very definition and import of marriage. One must put out the flames before beginning to rebuild. If the movement were, somehow, to make divorce even easier, you'd see increased fervor in opposition. (And, of course, as you seem already to know, I've often suggested that opposition to same-sex marriage would most likely lighten were its advocates to incorporate a call for tighter divorce laws.)

As for your reference to procreation, I'm glad that you find some humor, but it appears that you've been having a conversation with yourself. I'm happy to say that the male-female relationship is the only kind that creates new life, because it remains true.

Of course, that the development of arguments and exploration of nuances appears to be a mysterious process to you says nothing good about your habits of thought. It is very pragmatic and left-like to accuse the right of intransigence and then to cry foul when it acknowledges valid points for which it is wise to make adjustments.

Posted by: Justin Katz at September 2, 2009 4:26 AM

I won't make any wiseguy remarks about a group calling itself "queer action" as it tries to promote itself as mainstream. lol
By the way does Bill Lynch's hilarious response to our "sectarian extremist" Governor have anything to do with the Governor's refusal to name Lynchie's "queer action sister" to a state judgeship?? Hmm....

Posted by: Tim at September 2, 2009 8:14 AM

A quibble: Pragmatist's citing of the "50% of marriages end in divorce" canard is one of those things that drives me batty. The real stat is that the divorce rate is about 50% the marriage rate in any given year. That means, for every 100 new marriages in 2009 there were 50 divorces. Those divorces were between couples who married in, roughly, the 1-40 years prior to 2009. I believe the actual stat is that around 30% of marriages actually end in divorce. (Still not great, but it's not half!). More here and here

Posted by: Marc at September 2, 2009 9:11 AM


It is assertions like yours that this debate is solely about gay bashing that represent much of what is wrong with the culture not to mention, in my view, actually harming the movement towards legal recognition of gay relationships.

It is laughable that you missed Justin’s point on marriage transcending government. Simply put, the institution of marriage existed long before divorces. It is also laughable that you accuse the opponents of same-sex marriage of not being interested in tightening divorce laws thereby showing hypocrisy of ‘traditional’ values. Please.

The only thing I’ll acknowledge agreement with you is that the procreation argument to deny SSM is a weak one. Having said that, you stand as exhibit a as to why there may never be a rational and coherent debate between opponents on this issue. Because from where you stand, the only possible explanation for opposing changing the definition of marriage is hatred and bigotry.

How Pragmatic. You really should change your moniker.

Posted by: msteven at September 2, 2009 12:56 PM
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