The meaning of “Marriage”

Steve Ahlquist deserves major kudos for his efforts in helping to win marriage equality in Rhode Island.  I’m proud to say that my daughter also played a part by working the phones prior to some key votes.

Steve’s recent blog post suggests that the Catholic Church (and other religious interests) gambled and lost by fighting to preserve the equivalency between state-sanctioned marriage and the traditional religious sacrament.  He argues that the churches could have protected the meaning of “marriage” if they had advocated for a separation between the religious concept of marriage and the government concept of civil union.  We could have had a civil-union system in which all couples enjoyed all of the legal benefits traditionally extended to  married couples.  If couples desired the “marriage” label, they would be free to have it bestowed upon them by their choice of clergy (or humanist celebrant), without any state involvement.  Religious organizations would be free to extend or to limit sacramental marriage consistent with the tenets of their faiths.

When the issues of gay marriage and civil unions first rose to the forefront, I advocated for such a system, because I believed that the government had no business being in the marriage business.  Very few agreed with me.  The churches went for broke by fighting to preserve “marriage” as a state-supported sacramental rite.  Advocates for equal rights became invested in the word “marriage”, and they are winning the day.

Steve writes:

Not wanting to give up this valuable bit of confusion between church and state in our laws, conservative, anti-LGBTQ churches decided on an all or nothing strategy. They would fight for one meaning to the word marriage. The distinction between civil and religious marriage was collapsed. In defining the word marriage so precisely they gave up the opportunity to tease out two meanings, one secular and one religious. If, as those on the losing side of this battle proclaim, the word marriage is being redefined, it’s because they never really fought for the word.

Instead, they gambled with the word, betting that in the end the word would still mean what it had evolved over time to mean: a religious sacrament enshrined into law. If the word marriage really had such a high value, religious institutions should never have gambled with it. They should have moved to protect the word, by working to pull it out of the law books. Instead, they gambled and they lost.

Marriage from this day forward has a primary, firmly secular meaning that speaks to equality and a secondary, dare I say lesser, religious meaning that still potentially enshrines prejudice. Instead of fighting for a secular and fair society, religiously motivated marriage fundamentalists fought for theocracy and religious privilege.


The religious opposition feared that the extension of marriage to same-sex couples would change the nature of the institution.  Steve Ahlquist agrees that the meaning of the term marriage has, indeed, changed.  What else should a church expect when it seeks to have the state’s imprimatur on its sacraments?




8 thoughts on “The meaning of “Marriage”

  1. A civil union system, in which “the government has no business being in the marriage business” but still provides civil legal rights is a great idea, and one which deserves more public advocacy. The proposal is consistent with BOTH classic liberalism and libertarianism. Dan’s blog, as usual, is intelligent and thought-provoking. I’d add two thoughts. One, the pro-LGBT community put its fire and energy into government defined legal marriage, seeking to redefine a single government legal definition of marriage, JUST AS MUCH as the religious communities did. Perhaps the long term goals of the pro-LGBT community would have been better served in advocating a system like the one Dan describes instead. Even with a victory, the system still maintains an unfair government monopoly on legal marriage, with its inherent intrusiveness and potential discriminating still intact, for example against consensual adult polygamist marriage. My second point is that it must be admitted that even if such a civil union system were to prevail, traditionally religious fundamentalist folks would still not be happy, even if they could define their own “Catholic marriage,” “Baptist marriage,” etc. The reason they would still be furious is that many think homosexuality itself is an abomination, and thereby oppose the idea of any homosexual marriage, by any label, government sanctioned or not. Fortunately, through cultural awareness, political advocacy, and the expanding circle of reason, there is hope for continued change on that front in the future.

    • No, making marriage be religous and having civil unions for secular “marriages” just does not work. For the first part, the whole idea of civil unions came about to prevent gay couples from getting married. Heterosexual couples who did not have a religious cermony prior to 2001* got married, not civil unioned. Even applying civil unions to all non-religious marriages doesn’t take away the discriminatory purpose in the first place. It still results in a two-tiered second class system.

      But limiting marriage to purely religious ceremonies doesn’t solve the problem of gay couples getting married. And gay couples getting married was the problem civil unions were the solution to. This is because there are religious groups more than willing to marry gay couples.

      Civil unions seemed like it was a good idea, but it just does not work.

      * 2001 is the year Vermont introduced the concept of civil unions for gay couples.

      • I agree that civil unions, as it was applied in states enacting those laws, was discriminatory. That was because there was one system (marriage) for heterosexual couples and a different system (civil unions) for same sex couples – and they were anything but equal. But, I don’t think that civil unions arose as a way to keep gays from getting married; they arose as a way to provide committed couples with at least some of the protections and rights that married couples enjoyed during a time when there was just not enough support to extend full rights.

        There was controversy here in Connecticut when LGBT leadership endorsed our civil union law, because some felt that it was wrong to accept “half a loaf”. The community leaders justified their support by saying that there just was not enough support for marriage equality. The state Supreme Court fixed that.

  2. The problem I find with this analysis is the supposition that as long as Gays were afforded similar protections in the law they would be satisfied Calif disproves that scenario. Gays have civil unions and rights. prop 8 was passed defining the term marriage as between a man and woman This was overturned and now at the Supreme Court upholds the unconstitionality of Prop 8 they will be given no new rights except on what to call there Union. So in fighting “intolerance” from one point of view you create intolerance from the other side.

    • Deb – You are correct that those supporting same sex marriage would not be fully satisfied with a civil union option, nor should we be. While that is still a major improvement over the status quo, it still treats them differently. What was proposed is something different, i.e., the elimination of state sanctioned marriages for everyone (including heterosexual couples) in favor of civil unions, which would be available to all. If someone wants to call their civil union a marriage, they can have the relationship sanctified (or ritualized) by the church (or secular organization) of their choice.

  3. Thanks for talking about my post, Dan, it’s appreciated. Lots of good comments, too. Just to be clear, though, my ideas are about what could have been done over a decade ago, not about what I am advocating today. I am super happy, elated even, that marriage equality has finally come to Rhode Island. My point is simply that the religious right could have made a real case, years ago, about separating church and state, but blinded by bigotry and by the idea of keeping a little bit of theology in our laws, they blew it. In so doing they have lost any claim on the word marriage as purely religious and sacramental.

    Maybe if the Vatican can get that time machine they have stored away in their secret museum working, things will be different, but as of now marriage is a secular word for a secular institution, and I would not have it any other way.

    • Thanks, Steve. I absolutely did understand that. It was about a decade ago that I had expressed the view to a few close friends that a separate civil union system might be the way to go. As the train rolled on, though, it became clear to me as well that nothing but full marriage equality would suffice.

      Great work by you and everyone in RI!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s