The controversial topic of same-sex marriage may be simply a matter of semantics. Or perhaps it's not simple, but the definition of terms certainly matters in this debate.
A headline in last Saturday's Tribune Faith section asked a good question: Should government quit the marriage biz? We believe the answer is yes. While maintaining marriage as a religious sacrament uniting one man and one woman, civil unions should become the government-sanctioned joining of two people.
Under such a change, any two people wanting to throw in their lot together and take on the responsibilities and benefits of a legal personal partnership would buy a license and recite a pledge before a civil servant. If they wanted to be married, they would then go to a clergy person, meet all the criteria set by that particular church and be united by deity, according to the rules of that church.
Any church could refuse to marry any couple for any reason. Thus, if the doctrine of a certain sect dictated that two men or two women could not be married in that church, they would either have to find a church that would do the honors or be content with their status as partners in the eyes of the government.
The civil union would be the default partnership, as marriage is now, and would confer all rights and duties that married couples now enjoy. Traditional marriage would be, as it often is now, a religious ceremony, and not everybody would want or need it. The government and the church would not be partners in the contract.
The current trouble many Americans have with "same-sex marriage" arises from the fact that homosexuality is considered a sin in some churches, which also preach that marriage was created by God to encourage and protect procreation and children. But many other people believe homosexuality is not immoral or even unnatural and families shouldn't be defined narrowly as husband, wife and their offspring. Government should not be part of this debate and it should not confer the basic rights and obligations married couples now enjoy based on religious tenets.
Using religious doctrine as an argument to deny some Americans those rights is simply wrong. Religion should be kept out of what is essentially a government-sanctioned legal partnership. And government should not be involved in religious marriage rites, any more than it should oversee baptism, ordination, rites of passage into adulthood, the conferring of priesthood or ceremonies that send off an individual after death.