Civil Unions: Would a Marriage by any Other Name Be the Same?

Some theologically conservative Christians support civil unions and remain opposed to same-sex marriage.

"If we are to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America," President George Bush said February 24. However, opponents of the amendment argue that the definition of marriage is only a matter of semantics. Geoffrey Nunberg argued in the New York Times that what really matters is "the way ordinary people use the word." If through civil unions (as endorsed by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry) gay couples can obtain the benefits of marriage, what difference does the word marriage make?

Quite a bit, say a number of Christian leaders who support civil unions but oppose same-sex marriage. They see civil unions as a means of economic justice—but not just for homosexuals. In fact, they would rather see such legislation avoid mention of sexuality altogether.

"It may well be that for the sake of public justice we need to recognize different kinds of households, but I would never start that by primary reference to so-called gay households." said Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, professor of psychology and philosophy at Eastern University. "[Civil unions] could include things like single people looking after aging parents. It could include, as in my own family, two bachelor brothers and a sister who ran a farm their whole life." Defined this way, she says, civil unions would actually preserve the uniqueness of marriage.

Clarifying the issue People can call anything they want marriage, says James Skillen, president of the Center for Public Justice, but "humans aren't free to change the structure of reality. One of the central things about marriage, which is that it's grounded in heterosexual intercourse, is something that gay people can't ...

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