Civil unions aren’t holy matters

Monday, February 23, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 7:15 a.m. CDT, Thursday, July 17, 2008

The mating game is becoming more complex every day. As if it isn’t hard enough sometimes for two people to agree to tie the knot, now the government is getting involved in the selection process. Same-sex marriages, of course, are the source of the debate.

Usually, the government tends to be involved in the dissolution of the union, settling matters regarding alimony, child custody, property settlements, etc. So, I think the libertarian argument that government has no business in mating agreements is pretty simplistic. I believe civil unions are important in maintaining the social order.

I think a lot of the contention over the same-sex unions has to do with the fact that many people consider civil unions and holy matrimony in the same context. Some people who cohabit have private agreements concerning inheritance, property rights and other legal arrangements. Some municipalities allow domestic partners to share employees’ health benefits, which some might say is equivalent to a kind of civil union. Some people’s objections to these unions can be traced to their basic beliefs that religion and state should not be separated because they feel that the country was founded on Christian beliefs, and they believe that same-sex marriage is contrary to those beliefs. Some object to abortions for the same reasons. The continued debate over abortion is a good indication that these beliefs are strongly held and minds seldom change on this matter. Whatever the outcome regarding these marriages, the debates will go on for years to come.

When I was growing up, my family explained to me and my siblings about the separation of church and state. We talked about the “In God We Trust” phrase on coins and other examples of religious phrases in government materials that seemed to be in conflict with that separation. We were told that many citizens, probably a majority, supported those inclusions. Like most children, we grew up confused about this aspect of our Constitution, but it was a subject we never felt comfortable about bringing up in school. I still don’t feel comfortable talking about it because I know that these things are so near and dear to some people’s hearts.

But I think as time goes on and our population becomes increasingly diverse, we are going to be forced to deal with many realities that contradict our beliefs. Just the other day, I heard a discussion about our long-held idea that our society is a giant melting pot, contrary to the fact that many of our new immigrants are not being assimilated. As a minority, I’ve always thought of our diverse population as constituting more of a garden salad. In almost any community these days, one can find large groups where hardly any English is spoken.

In the past few decades, we have become such a rapidly changing society that one scarcely has the luxury of waiting around to see if anything is going to last. I think, for example, that all this talk about the military status of the presidential candidates is going to have some lasting effects. While most of us have always believed that the laws for the rich and poor are different, we have always made jokes or comments about this belief and moved on. But I suspect that the more evidence we see of this phenomenon, the less publicly acceptable this practice is going to be. Of course, we will never be able to put a stop to this sort of thing, but the more embarrassing it becomes, the less likely people will want to be publicly confronted with their un-democratic behavior.

The debate over same-sex marriage reminds me of the debate over interracial marriage that went on until the ban was ended by the Supreme Court in 1967. I was working for the government when two of my co-workers traveled to Iowa to wed because such marriages were illegal in Missouri. I recall that the employees’ opinions on the subject of this union were split down the middle and for the first two weeks following the nuptials, loud verbal confrontations broke out between people of opposite viewpoints almost every day. Within six months, most of the employees had settled down, and life went on.

All in all, I think we’re in for a period of major attitude adjustments and that may not be all bad. Many folks are still trying to push the clock back to the 1950s, which in their opinion were the good old days. As an African American, I can say they weren’t all that good for people like me.

In any case, I hope holy matrimony will remain the business of religious organizations and the state will remain in charge of civil unions. Maybe if we can understand why these two entities should remain separate, we can go a long way toward resolving this matter.

You can join the conversation with Rose M. Nolen

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