My post of January 5, 2007, " A Free Society Can Accommodate a Homosexual Minority," generated a rich set of comments. One thread asked the important question, why civil unions? Why not same-sex marriage? My answer is a bit different for civil society and for the church.
For both kinds of society, I believe that marriage as an institution is designed to unite the equal and complementary halves of the human species, a man and a woman, to make and rear children. Individual men and women, and individual marriages, approximate this ideal more or less fully. If they do not fully realize the ideal, they are not any lesser morally or ethically. Individual variation is normal and can have many benefits. The social norm of marriage sets a form of what is usually good for society as a whole, a norm around which all the actual marriages vary. A healthy society can tolerate quite a bit of variation, as long as the core is robust.
A free society ought to tolerate quite a bit of variation, for the sake of freedom. Too much variation, and too much freedom, can, of course, destroy society. That is always a risk. But we should err on the side of freedom wherever possible.
I think that our free civil society in the United States should support the social norm of marriage as a man and a woman united to make and rear children. This norm has ample support in our law, history, practice, and popular custom. Indeed, most people think it is the foundational institution of our whole society; I agree.
Some people, for one reason or another, cannot or do not wish to achieve that norm. I believe that our society is free and robust enough to accommodate many of those variations. Celibate people, married couples who cannot have children, even married couples who choose not to have children in the interests of a different social good are all good forms under the umbrella of our traditional standard of marriage. Single parents of many kinds, cohabiting couples, and cohabiting parents are good-enough forms of family life.
I do not see under our Constitution why same-sex couples, with and without children, are not good-enough approximation of marriages to be allowed under our civil law.
I think the term "marriage" means the equal and complementary forms of man and woman. A same-sex couple cannot, therefore, be married. This is the overwhelming sense of our tradition and our popular opinion about what "marriage" means. However, a civil union would give same-sex couples a good-enough legal status that was as close to marriage as the nature of their relationship allows. The countries with the most experience with homosexual civil unions, the Scandinavians, have found that most people – gay and straight -- can accept this approximation. Opinion surveys in the United States suggest that most people could accept a similar accommodation, especially in the younger generations.
I do not think homosexual couples would ever form civil unions at the same rate that straight couples marry. I think same-sex unions would have a higher break-up rate than marriages, in part because same-sex unions are much less likely to have children. Nonetheless, I believe a free society should offer the option to homosexual citizens who desire it. The effects on society of this accommodation would not be large.
The situation in the church is a little different, because, as I have argued earlier, I believe that the Bible does hold that same-sex sexual relations are sinful. I do not see how the church can condone an intentionally sexual relationship between persons of the same sex, even if such a relationship is likely to curb more or worse sins. I believe that the furthest that the church can go down this road is to tolerate same-sex relationships among those who are trying to avoid sex, even though we all sometimes lapse.
I do not relish reaching this conclusion, but I can see no other way around what appears to me to be the clear word and intention of Scripture, and the reality of desiring people in a fallen world.
I further think that the church can support same-sex civil unions, without asking the civil society to make any judgments about the sexual practices therein. The church itself, though, must make judgments about the sexual practices of those very same unions when they involve church members and officers. The church can, without inconsistency, recognize that the standards of the Constitution are not as demanding as those of the Bible. All citizens are entitled to the protection of the Constitution from the state, while all church members are entitled to choose to put themselves under the more stringent rule of the Bible in the church.
Thus, I support same-sex civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.