Things To Act
Saturday, July 24, 2004
Civil Unions Yet Again
First a few points:
*'Civil unions' is a broad term that can mean many different things. It serves as a catchall term for legal relationships that range from nonsexual with relatively few benefits to relationships explicitly intended to be 'marriage-in-all-but-name' for same-sex couples. The very question 'what does X think about civil unions?' thus is probably not a good yes/no question, as many people or institutions may have more complex views. In addition, as state legislatures (or state courts) begin to consider the issues, they may come to a variety of conclusions--in favor of 'marriage lite,' in favor of changing certain legal rights associated with marriage in certain ways, in favor or a broad restructuring of family law, etc. Any such changes might lead to a 'civil unions' provision, but what such a union might mean might vary considerably from state to state. The degree to which such a provision seems to encourage versus being neutral with respect to immorality and/or undermining marriage might also vary considerably.
*Simply because we expect to see an official Church condemnation of civil union laws (however defined) is not sufficient evidence to assume that such a condemnation has been made [a lack of condemnation does not equal an approval either, of course]. Projecting our own assumptions onto the words of the prophets is not a good thing (though it is, to a degree, inevitable). An example is the reaction to President Hinckley's war talk of last year--it would have been amusing, if it hadn't been painful to watch, to see various people (including one BYU religion professor) twist the Prophet's plain words to support their own narrow ideologies (to various ends). In any event, since I have seen no official statement condemning civil unions (despite seeing several statements on the related-but-not-legally-identical issue of preserving the definition of marriage), I am tentatively assuming that the Church has no express position on that political question (at this time).
*My tentative take on civil unions is that some proposed forms would be unwise, and some proposed forms might be good. I am aware that other members disagree with me in both directions. If someone is wrong in a way that needs to be corrected, CHQ is quite capable of doing so without my help. In the meantime, I think it wise to remember that members can hold a wide variety of political opinions on various issues, and that our doctrines can lead different faithful members to different answers to difficult questions. I tend to be in favor of an expansive view of what odd beliefs are permissible--not because I think that odd beliefs are always good (by definition, the beliefs are odd to me; my odd beliefs are perfectly reasonable), but because A) it's difficult enough for people to join the Church without our erecting all kinds of unnecessary political and cultural barriers, and B) the GAs are quite capable of deciding how to bring us all along on the difficult issues of our day. As we need further direction, or as less important political issues become more important, CHQ is perfectly capable of issuing clearer directions, emphasizing specific doctrines, and even establishing additional requirements for worthiness.
Finally, a reader sends this account from a state on the East Coast, which I found interesting enough to pass on:
I was interested to learn, in an informal conversation with our stake president after a Saturday stake conference session, that he had been asked by the Brethren (most probably the Area Presidency) to organize a political coalition ... with the express purpose of maintaining the traditional definition of marriage. (It was subsequently organized and is chaired by the stake president's wife, who is also a former state legislator...). I asked him what he thought about civil unions and he said he had no objections to the idea (this was contextually taken as a personal opinion). The overriding concern he seemed to be expressing (on whose behalf I am uncertain) was that if the definition of marriage is "legally" altered, then all the laws and public policies referring to marriage are effectively being rewritten without careful forethought. Civil unions, on the other hand, are a new legal construction, and the laws governing what rights will be granted to such unions would (presumably) have to be defined explicitly through current legislation and/or litigation, rather than being defined implicitly by already-existing legislation and precedent which had only married couples in mind when it was created.
This may not be exactly what he meant, but that's how it seemed to me. I subsequently had the thought that maintenance of the traditional definition also allows the church to continue to use the word, while a societal redefinition of "marriage" would force the church to invent a new word to mean the same thing marriage used to mean.
What has been interesting to me is the extent to which this coalition, though it is not visibly organized as a church program, is referred to in church meetings, in counsel from the stake president on what to teach our families regarding the marriage debate, and in literature printed and distributed by the stake. While nobody has explicitly given a statement of the church's position on civil unions, the implicit message seems to be that maintaining the definition of marriage is the key issue at present. We were counseled to call our senators and tell them what we thought about the FMA, but were not explicitly counseled to support it.
It seems to me that allowing civil unions would lead to the same social effects as redefining marriage, but on a slower timescale as things filter through the courts, and with the legal terminology making it explicitly clear that such an arrangement is not exactly equivalent to marriage. In the long run, I am not sure what good this does except to delay the inevitable (and allow the church to continue to use the usual words to teach the doctrine). Maybe a delay is the best we can get?
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