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The Truth, Mainly - 08/16/2004

Another Solomonic solution

Okay, here's the dilemma:

How can we Americans fulfill our constitutional duties to treat everyone equally under the law at the same time we allow everyone to act on their own religious beliefs, some of which conflict with those constitutional duties?

What I'm talking about is the question of gay marriage. Constitutional guarantees of equality under the law, taken seriously, suggest that gay marriage should be as legal as straight marriage—but several Bible passages suggest gay marriage violates Divine Instruction.

So what do we do?

What we've been doing is yelling at each other in ways that don't convince either side to back down.

But now comes a proposal that seems workable and fair to both sides.

The proposer of the proposal is not a clergyman from the Church of Divine Compromise. Nor is he a civil rights lawyer who has reached a new level of Kindly Tolerance of Ecclesiastical Tradition.

He's a newspaper columnist.

Yes, he is. A newspaper columnist, one of the brothers. His name is Bill Tammeus and he writes for the Kansas City Star. He's come up with a great idea.

What we need, he wrote in a column last month, are two different kinds of marriage: civil and sacred. Here's how he defines the two:

"Civil marriage is what happens when the government grants a couple a license to be joined legally, thereby obtaining the rights, benefits, privileges and responsibilities of matrimony. Sacred marriage is what happens when a religious community blesses a couple's union."

Legalizing that distinction, he says, would allow government "for reasons of equal protection of the law" to "grant civil marriage licenses to same-sex couples as well as heterosexual couples…[but] it would not obligate religious communities to bless gay unions. It simply would extend the law's benefit to all couples, much as laws outlawing discrimination extend protection to all races…."

Get that? If your church believes more strongly in Leviticus ("Thou shalt not lie with mankind, as with womankind: it is abomination") than it believes in the Constitution's first amendment ("Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion….") then your church doesn't have to acknowledge gay marriages.

Under the Tammeus proposal, gay marriage wouldn't desecrate Holy Matrimony because it wouldn't pretend to be Holy Matrimony.

This doesn't mean that only gays could have civil marriages and only straights could have sacred marriages. There are churches out there that offer sacred marriages for gays, and there are certainly some straights who would find civil marriage more to their taste than sacred marriage.

The Truth, Mainly


In the interest of full disclosure, I admit that I count myself and my wife among the latter group. We got married 47 years ago in a church that we haven't been back to in 47 years. We weren't particularly looking for Holy Matrimony when we got married, but that seemed to be the only kind of matrimony in town. Had there been a Dirty Rotten Secular Humanist Matrimony Shop handy, we'd probably have gone there to get our knot tied.

Apropos of nothing more than my pleasure in talking about our offspring: our kids seemed to have the same notion: our older son got married in a courtroom that was between trials, our daughter got married in our back yard, and our younger son got married in Las Vegas.

"When are you two going to get married?" we used to ask him.

"When we find a place tawdry enough," he'd say.

Then one day during Spring Break, we got a call from Vegas.

"We found a place tawdry enough," he said. "If we'd had more money, we could have hired an Elvis impersonator to sing at our wedding."

Made us wish we'd been there.

But I digress.

The problem with what we've got now is that for religious reasons, gay partners are not allowed the same legal rights that straight partners are given. I'm talking about what a story by Adam Haslett in the May 31 issue of New Yorker calls "a vast array of legal, financial, and medical rights and benefits."

Say, for example, your partner is a citizen of another country. If you're in a straight marriage, your partner can share your right to live here. But if you're in a same-sex union, your partner is denied that spousal right and runs the risk of deportation. That's an outrage.

Your church needn't recognize same-sex marriage, but your government should.

And imagine: it took a Kansas City newspaper columnist with the wisdom of Solomon to point that out.


Retired English Professor Leon Satterfield writes to salvage clarity from his confusion. His column appears on alternate Mondays. His e-mail address is: leonsatterfield@earthlink.net.


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