The semantic quibble is tiresome

The “marriage” vs “civil union” discussion is semantic. If you favor civil union for same-sex couples, you favor extending the civil codes relating to marriage to gay people. I guess the semantic argument bothers me for two reasons — first that I am an old English teacher and administrator who has had to get around too many arguments like this from people who didn’t do their homework, and second because this one has been used for so long to deny people their civil rights.

Today is the anniversary of the 2004 law that made Massachusetts the first state to sanction same-sex marriage, a right now recognized in five states and in Washington D.C. One of the first arguments put forward was by people who declared support for the rights of same-sex couples but who were unwilling to give them the word. On Facebook today the argument is still out in full force — “I support civil unions, but we should not redefine marriage.”

It is a religious quibble to deny civil and human rights to protect the use of a sacramental word in the civil code. Sacramental words are sacred and deeply appreciated within their respective churches, but in civil records “marriage” and “union” are both words with meaningful legal standing. Marriage in the civil code is the union of two people who express their commitment to each other and promise to live together as a couple. You can get “married” at the courthouse before a judge or magistrate without the intervention or sanction of any church, and under the civil law you will be married. So those who object to the use of the word “marriage” can have civil unions any time just by voting for gay marriage. Marriage is already a civil union in the United States.

With or without the law, each church must decide whether or not to sanctify same-sex unions. Each church can also decide what to call whatever they decide to do. Language is organic and takes time to change, but it follows the culture — so your terminology might catch on. If you wait for the language of the civil laws to change before you are willing to correct a recognized denial of civil rights within the culture, you are putting the cart before the horse.

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