The issue of gay marriage, rightly or wrongly, has once again played an important role early on in this election cycle. While the president actually has little control over the specific implementation of policy regarding this issue, it is a convenient litmus test, and an excellent “wedge issue,” designed to excite both bases and increase voter turnout.
Proponents of gay marriage argue about civil rights and government sponsored discrimination based on sexual orientation. Opponents most often cite Judeo-Christian law as defining marriage as between one man and one woman. As a peace offering (and a vote pandering) gesture, however, they often offer “civil unions” as a method of assuring civil rights.
There are two major flaws in these arguments opposing gay marriage. First, in 1954 the Supreme Court of the United States decided the landmark case of Brown v. the Board of Education. In this ruling, the court ruled in a unanimous decision that separate institutions (in this case, in education) were inherently unequal. The same can be easily applied to the current question. A separate institution (of civil unions) must be considered inherently unequal to marriage; even if the same civil protections were to apply. However, proponents of civil unions will reluctantly admit that the real reason they oppose actual gay marriage is to give themselves cover at withholding specific civil protections (notably, the ability to adopt). Thus, the gay civil union (or domestic partnership, or whatever the fashionable euphemism of the day is) is inherently unconstitutional even with the purest of intentions, which admittedly do not even apply in this situation.
Second is the question of the Judeo-Christian definition of marriage. The problem comes when one tries to reconcile the definition of marriage as a religious institution with the definition of marriage as a civil institution. If one considers marriage a predominantly civil institution, then this argument has no bearing. If one considers marriage a predominantly religious institution, then the government has, in effect, recognized and condoned an official religious viewpoint regarding a fundamental institution.
For much of the United States’ history, this problem went undetected but has now been brought to the forefront. The only logical solutions to this paradox are for marriage to become either entirely civil (and thus defined any way the government sees fit), or entirely religious; the latter is the only feasible one, as churches and other religious bodies will not, cannot, and should not cede the institution of marriage. Thus, in the name of fairness and equality, the government must stop recognizing marriage as a civil institution altogether. Rather, all couples (including heterosexuals) who chose to “marry” religiously would need to establish a civil union as well (indistinguishable from a civil marriage currently) in order to qualify for the government rights and benefits of a committed couple. Only then can we move forward as a society to decide rationally which types of unions (in addition to traditional heterosexual couples) should qualify for this institution. In this way, and only this way, can the government endeavor to treat all of its citizens fairly, maintain control over its own institutions, and not offend hundreds of millions of religious taxpayers (and voters).
My personal views on homosexuality and homosexual couples/marriage are irrelevant to this discussion, which is entirely about fairness, constitutionality, and the separation of church and state. There is too much water under this bridge, and this issue will not go away as long as one side stands to benefit from its discussion (even if it becomes settled law). Personally, regardless of my own views, I am convinced that someday in the future, the history of gay marriage will be looked upon much as the history of interracial marriage is today. Every public figure would be wise to choose prudently which side of history they want to be on.