Should government get out of the marriage business?

Rob McKenna has an interesting idea for defusing the gay-marriage debate, but he doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.

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Rob McKenna

Rob McKenna has an interesting idea for defusing the gay-marriage debate, but he doesn’t seem to want to talk about it.

It’s always refreshing when a politician says something unexpected, candid, even thoughtful. And disappointing, though not surprising, when politicians hide like ostriches from their own candid thoughts.

Rob McKenna, the attorney general who would be governor (and one of the brainiest guys on the local political scene), did the former in April when he took the hot seat at a Crosscut lunch — a forum kind of like Meet the Press, but with pizza instead of TV cameras. He may be doing the latter now; I’ve called his campaign office twice to follow up on one interesting remark he made then and not heard back. After three months I guess he doesn’t want to talk about it.

That’s a shame, because I really did appreciate what he said and wanted to hear more about it. McKenna did have many other, arguably weightier policy matters to discuss in April, but the hot button of the hour was his opposition to same-sex marriage, which the Seattle Times’ Danny Westneat had denounced in a recent column. That column elicited 664 online comments in three days, surely more than any of those other matters ever would.

When one of the attendees asked about his stand on gay marriage, McKenna responded (as I and others recall) by saying in effect that “you can make a good argument that the government shouldn’t be involved in marriage at all. But since it is, here’s why I’m against gay marriage.” And he went on to talk about protecting children and stable communities and the security of the nuclear family. He soft-pedaled the religious concerns that Westneat also attributed to him, but did say he worried that legalizing gay marriage would lead to pressure on religious institutions to perform such marriages, even if they opposed the practice.

McKenna’s contention that same-sex marriage threatens kids and families is a huge stretch, in my view, but his prefatory remark "that the government shouldn't be involved in marriage at all" is more interesting, from a religious as well as a civil-liberties view. As it stands, the institution of marriage represents a messy entanglement of civil and religious authority. It is a civil contract, a holy sacrament according to at least one major religion, and a contract pledged to God or otherwise conducted under divine auspices for most others. Priests, rabbis, and imans sign marriage licenses issued by the state, making them officers of the state.

When they adopted the separation clause of the First Amendment, James Madison and the other founders realized that such entanglements corrupt both state and church. That’s one reason Americans, whose constitution prohibits an established church, tend to be so much more religious than Europeans, who’ve lost respect for their established churches.

McKenna is hardly the first to recognize the conflicts inherent in our church/civil marital mash-up; the idea has long been an undercurrent in what passes for debate over gay marriage (or marriage equality, to give both framings of the issue their due). At first, the people who advanced the idea of disentanglement seemed to be supporters of same-sex marriage; maybe that’s why McKenna doesn’t seem to want to be associated with it. Now, says Josh Friedes, the “marriage equality director” at the pro-same-sex-marriage group Equal Rights Washington, they’re “those who are trying to find some sort of compromise” — a way to finesse the issue and move on to other things.

I suppose I’ve been among the latter. I’ve long found the idea of getting government out of the marriage business appealing, from a practical as well as a principled view. Ceding the “M” word to the religious right would deflect a wedge issue that had become nearly as divisive, and just as ripe for exploitation, as abortion. Semantics this might be, but words have power, especially this word. Call it “same-sex union” instead of “gay marriage” and the heat goes right out of the fight.

Or so I thought, until I talked to Friedes, a guy who spends a lot more time thinking about marriage rights and wrongs than McKenna or I. “Legal marriage is an incredibly successful institution,” he says. “The federal government recognizes 1,138 rights and responsibilities associated with it.” Think of survivor benefits, tax-filing status, common property — the modern welfare state could hardly function without it. Marriage is just as deeply embedded in civil as in religious culture.

“We all have a common understanding of what marriage is, and that comes from civil marriage,” insists Friedes. “That’s why it’s important that we continue to offer civil marriages.”

Whether that “common understanding” ultimately derives from civil rather than religious marriage, I’m not so sure. But the urge to call someone else “husband” or “wife” runs deep, and “partner” and other alternatives remain wan, awkward substitutes. The wider world wants to hold onto the “M” word for the same reasons that the religious right wants to hijack it — because, as Friedes says, “the word ‘marriage’ is magical, one of the most meaningful words in the English language.”

Maybe that’s why that clever idea of getting government out of the marriage business remains a pipe dream. “Never,” says Friedes, “have I heard something raised so frequently which has caught so little traction.”

Perhaps religious conservatives will latch onto the idea in an effort to salvage some scrap of an issue they once controlled. Maybe they already are, and McKenna was hinting at such a strategy. But why would advocates for same-sex marriage want to concede the point when they know they’re winning? Public opinion has turned their way, by a small but growing margin. States are falling in line, first via court decisions and now by popular vote — and the sky isn’t falling. Your gay cousin or the lesbian couple down the street gets married and, lo and behold, nothing changes, except they gain the security and privileges other married couples enjoy.

The church on the next block can still refuse to recognize their bond, contrary to McKenna's fears and the trumped-up warnings of the religious right. Catholics, Muslims, Unitarians, and Green Spaghetti Monsterites have a perfect constitutional right to exclude gays, gum chewers, or Gregorian chanters from their rites, if they so choose. They just can’t make the state deny them the civil rights everyone else receives — and which are inextricably bound up with the idea of marriage. In that sense, at least, marriage really is the bond that cannot be torn asunder.

It would interesting to discuss this with Rob McKenna.

Editor's note: We corrected the spelling of Josh Friedes' name.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano

Eric Scigliano's reporting on social and environmental issues for The Weekly (later Seattle Weekly) won Livingston, Kennedy, American Association for the Advancement of Science, and other honors. He has also written for Harper's, New Scientist, and many other publications. One of his books, Michelangelo's Mountain, was a finalist for the Washington Book Award. His other books include Puget SoundLove, War, and Circuses (aka Seeing the Elephant); and, with Curtis E. Ebbesmeyer, Flotsametrics.