Wednesday, March 27, 2013

In Which I Advocate for Domestic Partnership

Almost everyone I know is currently up in arms about gay marriage.  It's understandable; a substantial portion of the American population is being denied basic civil rights on a flimsy 'moral' pretext.

The argument as to whether homosexuality is moral or immoral is relevant to the social and personal treatment of gays, but it should be irrelevant to law.  Law is not, contrary to popular belief, derived from a moral argument.  It's derived from an ethical agreement we participate in as a society.  Things are not illegal because they are 'wrong' on a moral level.  In a pluralistic society, things should be illegal because they're detrimental to the social order, not because they're in opposition to a theological position.

Civil rights are not detrimental to the social order.  Equality is not detrimental to the social order.  If you give everyone the same rights and privileges under the law, it creates a more stable system, not a less stable one.  Greater social stability is an inherent benefit to those who live within a society, so long as it doesn't prevent the growth and progress of that society.  Any expansion of civil rights encourages the growth and progress of a society.

Marriage equality is a complex issue, and one that affects me on a number of levels.  As a non-Christian, I object to living under the assumption of 'Christian morality'.  As a straight ally, I see my friends and loved ones denied a basic right I enjoy simply because my sexual preference is more palatable to a certain segment of the population.  And as a clergyperson, I have to wrestle with the issue of whether or not I will perform heterosexual marriages when I can't legally solemnize same-sex ones.

The first two are larger social problems, but the last can be viewed as a matter of contracts.  Ultimately, what I've come to consider is that I should give up my power to confer legal status on anyone, straight or gay.  When I perform a wedding, it should be solely a spiritual and social ceremony, with no legal standing at all.  I believe that clergy should play a simple role, managing the rites and rituals of community life.  But I believe that ultimately, the only way to maintain a proper separation of church and state is to create two separate elements to marriage.

The first element is the social and spiritual one, the ceremony before community in which consenting adults swear oaths to one another by whatever they hold sacred, oaths that create no legal obligation.  This element of a wedding confers a social standing upon the participants, by which those who share similar values can recognise that these people have made promises to one another.  It creates a moral obligation, but no connection under the law.  I feel, as a priestess, that I am qualified to perform these ceremonies because I intimately understand the structures of oath and obligation, the social fabric of community that makes that ritual meaningful.

The second aspect of marriage is the legal contract.  It creates a connection under law, a set of obligations with fiscal and legal ramifications, and a set of privileges that affect property transfer, parental rights, healthcare decisions, and financial standing.  The set of promises entailed in civil marriages all relate to simple contract law, and should be handled as such by a state-appointed official well-versed in contracts, estate law, tax policy, and property rights.  As a priestess, I am not an expert on contract law, and am not best qualified to legitimize that relationship.

I propose a complete severance between the aspects of marriage, that the clergy be left unmolested to perform any marriage they choose:  man to woman, man to man, woman to woman, three or more people.  In cases where one party is unable to legally consent (age, mental incapacity), clergy marriage shouldn't provide protection to the relationship (if you find a priest to marry you to a twelve-year-old girl, "she's my wife" should not protect you from statutory rape), but otherwise there should be no legal restrictions on who can be married in such a ceremony.

In tandem with this, any domestic partnership should be required to undergo a civil contract registry to obtain the rights, privileges, and legal standing available to married persons.  Any number of consenting adults can sign a contract, provided all signatories agree to the terms.  You can be married all you like, but without a domestic registry the state recognises nothing about your union.  Each state has a standard set of rights and privileges associated with marriage, and a simple "John Doe and Jane Smith agree to enter into a domestic partnership according to the laws of (state) with no exceptions," contract would cover most marriages, and those with more complex relationships are free to seek legal counsel to codify the terms of their marriage contract, just as a couple can seek legal advice for a prenuptial agreement now.

Most suggestions of 'domestic partnership' offer a 'separate but equal' dodge around marriage equality, creating a second tier of 'almost the same' to be offered to gays and lesbians, but that creates a second-class marital status.  Pure equality under the law requires, ultimately, that only the law determine who has a legal standing.

This involves me giving up a power I currently hold under law, but I've been feeling a growing conflict with that power for some time.  I am not qualified to advise on the legal ramifications of contract marriage, and if I am truly taking the responsibility of officiating weddings seriously, I should be able to intelligently explain to everyone involved the full ramifications of the thing we are doing together.

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