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Dearly beloved ...

As the Maryland General Assembly has wrestled with a bill that would redefine marriage, The Baltimore Sun’s Julie Bykowicz and Annie Linskey have wrestled with what to call the bill as they report on the debate.

The bill is formally called the Civil Marriage Protection Act. Civil marriage, of course, we already have. You pay the state a fee for a license to marry, the marriage is attested to by a qualified civil or religious authority, and you are in business with rights and responsibilities for children (if any), property, insurance, and a whole set of other legal statuses.*

The question is whether civil marriage, now defined legally as between a man and a woman, is to be extended to couples of two men or two women. Religious marriage, however it is understood by church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, doesn’t enter into it.

Calling it civil marriage, however, is problematic because of the potential confusion with civil union, which would be an equivalent of civil marriage not called marriage.

Proponents of the bill under consideration like to refer to marriage equality, because equality sounds like a good thing to everybody. They would prefer that to the other terms commonly used, same-sex marriage and gay marriage. I presume that their preference for the euphemistic term rises from their knowledge of the emotionally negative—irrational—reaction that some people have to homosexuality.**

But extending secular marriage rights to same-sex couples or gay couples, whichever term you prefer, is precisely what the bill is about.

So Ms. Bykowicz and Ms. Linskey quote proponents using the language they prefer and quote opponents using the language they prefer, and when writing neutrally about the bill use the most readily understood and accurate terms. Whether the terms same-sex marriage and gay marriage are aesthetically pleasing is immaterial; they are accurately descriptive, and they’re what we’ve got to work with.


*There are people who will argue that marriage is all about procreation. They are mistaken. If I may repeat myself, and frankly, you can’t stop me, people who think that marriage is not about property have never read Jane Austen.

**There is also difficulty with the term the other side uses, traditional marriage. Which tradition? The polygamous arrangements of the Hebrew patriarchs and kings of Israel? Arranged marriages? First cousins or not? Divorce permitted or prohibited? The Deceased Wife’s Sister Act? Marriage with concubinage? With mistresses? The marriage-divorce-marriage-divorce-marriage pattern that some anthropologists call serial polygamy? Dowries?


Posted by John McIntyre at 9:51 AM | | Comments (11)


"Uncivil marriage" would be a good title for a sitcom.

On the whole I agree with the points you make. I would like to explore how we can preserve the distinction of what you call "religious marriage." This will be necessary when same-sex married couples come to our churches. I agree that won't happen a lot, but at my church it's a real possibility. Good points about traditional marriage also. But maybe you meant Hebrew patriarchs and kings. I can't think offhand of any polygamous prophets in the Old Testament.

Patriarchs, indeed. Thanks for the correction.

As to religious marriage, congregations determine who their members are, and the state has no role in it. I can foresee that some people may want to make statements by showing up, but I seriously doubt that anyone will stay in an unwelcoming congregation.

To follow up on DanS's comment, and on John's point about "religious marriage," I propose to avoid that term altogether, as it means one thing to the Catholic church, where gay marriages are proscribed, and something entirely different to, for example, Episcopalians, which church allows same-sex marriages.

On the subject of traditions, let's not forget levirate marriage: if a married man dies without issue, a brother must marry the widow and give her an heir in order to preserve the deceased man's family line. Very traditional in the ancient Middle East, including among Hebrews (see, e.g., Genesis 38:1-30). That's not a tradition I imagine a lot of traditional marriagists would like to see revived.


P.S. Yes, I just used the word "marriagists." I have no idea if it's brand new or not, but it's brand new to me. I like it.

Not all who enter into same-sex marriages (or their legal equivalents) are gay. One of my closest friends has been roommates with another woman for almost 20 years, and a same-sex marriage between them would give them many advantages -- the ability to make medical decisions for the other, for example, rather than leaving it up to their far-away families. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania has neither same-sex marriage nor civil unions. When they were living in New York City, they were registered with the city as domestic partners, a useful status since one of them was working for the city at the time. Per contra, many gay people are or have been legally married to opposite-sex spouses. So "same-sex marriage" is the better term, and I urge everyone to adopt it (except perhaps in headlines).

There is no same-sex marriage in the U.K., but there is civil partnership, which is legally equivalent. Curiously, though, civil partnerships may not be solemnized by religious bodies, even those that wish to do so. The Quakers, whose members marry each other with the congregation as witnesses, asked the U.K. government to change the law, which would presumably create a category of "religious civil partnerships". Apparently this is now law, but has not yet been "implemented", whatever that means.

New York State also has neither same-sex marriage nor civil union, but it does recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states and countries, with the curious result that we have same-sex divorce but not same-sex marriage.

@DanS: Until the Catholics are forced to marry the divorced, or a rabbi is required to let a Christian couple get married in his temple, or anything else: STOP WORRYING ABOUT IT.

No church will be forced to give room to people they despise. Or even just don't accept. Or even "love" while denying them full equality. That's the whole point of civil marriage. After all, it's "by the power vested in me by the state" that makes a priest/pastor/rabbi's words actually performative. The marriage isn't legal just because it happened in a church.

See Fred Phelps for proof that nothing in civil rights will trump a church's ownership of its religion. But right now, churches that don't have a problem with same-sex marriage can't perform one, because it's illegal. Where's their freedom?

@ The Ridger, who wrote, "churches that don't have a problem with same-sex marriage can't perform one, because it's illegal."

Is it illegal? Many churches do recognize same-sex marriage and have been performing such marriages for years. While it is true that these marriages may not be recognized by the state, they are recognized by God, at least in the thinking of those congregations. I suppose the only illegality would be if the churches claimed to be acting with the authority of the state when performing same-sex marriages. But which is, ultimately the higher authority?

An argument against homosexual marriage must be irrational. Hmmmmm.

An argument against homosexual 'marriage' must be an irrational one. Hmmmm.

Sorry. That silly CAPTCHA thingie again.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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