Civil Union Rights

July 21, 2009


Washington state recently passed a bill that gave partners in registered domestic partnerships, their children, and their relatives the same civil rights, protections, and obligations as partners in marriage (SENATE BILL 5688). This got the religious right up in arms about alleged dangers to marriage, family and religion. So, they are mounting a huge, well-funded campaign to pass a voter sponsored initiative 71. How sad and pointless.

What is marriage? Well, for starters, there are two kinds of marriage: marriage as a civil contract between partners and marriage as a religious sacrament. What the former involves is a huge collection of laws and regulations that define the legal and civil rights and responsibilities of marriage partners, their children, and their relatives. These regulations are very complex, largely because people's lives are very complex. Recently, the laws have had to take into account multiple consecutive marriages. For example, what rights does your third wife have over a child you and your first wife adopted? Most of these regulations are intended for the good of any children involved in the marriages. For example, it is obvious that your current wife should be able to sign a medical consent form for that adopted child, if necessary.

The other half of these laws has to do with regulating what is fair and just when a marriage is dissolved, either through divorce or death. If you died, your third wife would carry on as surviving parent to the adopted child and things like visitation with your first widow would continue unchanged (unless one party petitioned the court to make changes). The guiding principle here is the good of the child (at least in theory).

This has nothing to do with the religious sacrament of marriage. Aside from the fact that, in our society, the joining of two people in the sacred bonds of matrimony is accomplished at the same time as the civil contract of marriage. Civil law recognizes religious ceremonies of marriage to have equal standing to a marriage presided over by a judge or justice of the peace, provided that the church and the parties to said marriage fill out the civil paperwork, too. But in this country of guaranteed religious freedom, there's no other connection between the civil and the religious marriage. Many religions have all kinds of conditions they set before a couple can consecrate their love in the union of marriage. Some require the bride to be a virgin, others require them to be both members in good standing of the religion, or prohibit a man marrying his brother's widow. In some sects the marriage ceremony includes live rattlesnakes.`

One good friend of mine has been divorced and remarried for 11 years. His church does not recognize his civil divorce and views his current marriage as adultery, even now that this first wife passed away. The church can't prevent him from obtaining a civil divorce, nor can the state require the church to recognize his current civil marriage. Separation of church and state. That is how we do things in these United States. If he lived in Ireland, he could not have gotten a divorce from his first wife until his church said it was OK (assuming he was Catholic). We do not conjoin church and state here in the USA and the vast majority of us are glad of that fact.

The law recognizes no requirements imposed by any church, nor does it require any religion to marry, or refrain from marrying any couple for any reason. Until comparatively recently, many churches in these United States refused to marry people of different races. Some states had similar misogynistic laws, too, but the point is that in many cases the churches carried right on refusing to marry "mixed" couples long after those laws got changed. It is also true that some churches married mixed race couples even when it was against the law. In this country, the law does not have the power to tell any church who they have to marry. In some cases, the law does tell churches who they may not marry, as in the law that prohibits Muslims from marrying more than one wife in the USA*

Some people choose to exercise their religious freedom by being atheists. We recognize their right to do so, even if we think they are wrong. We do not require atheists to get married in church. We allow them to get married before a judge or justice of the peace. We do this because we recognize that even outside of any sacrament of marriage, marriage is good for people, good for society, and especially good for children. It is the preferred state of being for many people who want to build a life with another person and grow with that person in a fulfilling and loving relationship. People who are not heterosexual are still people. They have the same needs and feelings and many of them form lifelong relationships with their partners. In these situations, there are often children - not the biological offspring of both partners, naturally, but no different from the family situations where two divorced people combine their households under a single roof, marry and adopt each other's children as their own.

In this country, until very recently, civil unions were prohibited between same-sex partners. Then, as instances of unfairness and injustice made clear the need, in many jurisdictions, the laws were changed to grant some rights and responsibilities to same-sex couples. Here are some examples of the bad old days:

The domestic partners act (SENATE BILL 5688) states:

"For purposes of this chapter, the terms spouse, marriage, marital, husband, wife, widow, widower, next of kin, and family shall be interpreted as applying equally to state registered domestic partnerships or individuals in state registered domestic partnerships, as well as to marital relationships and married persons."

If initiative 71 were enacted, we would reinstate the conditions that led to the two sad examples above. The children of people who are in civil unions would not receive equal protection under the law as the children of heterosexual partners in marriages. This seems so obviously wrong. However much you disagree with the life choices of parents, should their children suffer under the law because of their parents' choice? There is no way to legislate away all the suffering of children, but when the law can prevent unnecessary suffering, should the law refrain because some people think their parents are in the wrong?

SENATE BILL 5688l does nothing to undermine families. It strengthens families. It broadens the civil protections already available under the law to children in marriages to children in domestic partnerships. It will extend the same protections and responsibilities in marriage divorce situations to civil union dissolutions. If these regulations are good for married people, then they are good for people in civil unions.

People who want to get married will get married - sometimes before a judge, sometimes in a church. This law will not tinker with their religious convictions any more than it will affect their sexual preferences. People who say that giving people equal protection under the law will undermine family values and destroy marriage are bigots, pure and simple. They are intolerant bigots who are looking for any justification for their fear and hatred of people who are different from themselves. Initiative 71 seeks to decrease the fairness and justness in the law and those who support it are lobbying for injustice and intolerance.

* "Polygamy is illegal in America, and Islam would not permit a Muslim to commit an offence that lays him in jail.  We American Muslims are subject to American law and we have the right of objection only if the law forces us to do something against Islam.  Since monogamy is not against Islam, we don’t have a case for dissent." Muslim Women's League, (c) 2000

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