The M Word

David Blankenhorn and Jonathan Rauch have an Op Ed in the New York Times on “A Reconciliation on Gay Marriage.” Blankenhorn has spoken out strongly against gay marriage. Jonathan Rauch has been in favor of it. They think they have struck a deal. Here is their proposal:

Congress would bestow the status of federal civil unions on same-sex marriages and civil unions granted at the state level, thereby conferring upon them most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage. But there would be a condition: Washington would recognize only those unions licensed in states with robust religious-conscience exceptions, which provide that religious organizations need not recognize same-sex unions against their will. The federal government would also enact religious-conscience protections of its own. All of these changes would be enacted in the same bill.

The gist of the proposal is that same-sex couples could receive federal benefits, while religious entities would not be forced to recognize their unions. B & R note that the First Amendment likely means no church can be required to perform a same-sex union. Under the proposal they offer, a church auxiliary or charity also could not be forced to give spousal benefits to the partner of a gay employee; a faith-based nonprofit would not lose tax status by refusing to host a gay wedding ceremony.

The proposal is likely to generate a good deal of discussion and opposition on both sides. Marriage proponents will object to the seemingly broad exemption for religious groups; marriage opponents will object to any conferral of federal benefits on same-sex couples.

One aspect of the proposal, which might easily be overlooked, strikes me as fatal.


Read carefully. Under the proposal offered, Congress would deem marriages and civil unions between same-sex couples and recognized under state law to be federal civil unions.

Think about that. A couple married in Massachusetts would be downgraded to a civil union for purposes of federal law.

This suggests to me that Blankenhorn’s real interest here is to keep same-sex couples from using the M word and to do that by codifying civil unions into the language of federal law. The title of the Op Ed and the multiple references to marriage throughout it conceal an underlying motive.

If, as the Op Ed suggests, the concern of people of faith is with making sure they are not required to recognize same-sex unions, the exemption accomplishes that. What additional reason justifies the federal government deeming a marriage a civil union?

If Blankenhorn is being candid about the concerns religious organizations have, once those concerns are addressed through the exemption, he should have no difficulty with the federal government recognizing marriages as marriages and civil unions as civil unions. Alternatively, Blankenhorn should have no problem in deleting “marriage” entirely from the U.S. Code and replacing it with “civil union,” a term that would be defined to include marriages and civil unions recognized under state law.

I bet the label “federal civil unions” is not negotiable for Blankenhorn. If he explains to us why a marriage in Massachusetts can not be a marriage in the eyes of the U.S. government, we would be in a much better position to assess the proposal as a whole.

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8 Responses

  1. A.J. Sutter says:

    And the reason a “deal” (vel non) between Blankenhorn and Rauch is important is …?

  2. A.W. says:

    Seconding AJ on that. So two people I never heard of made a deal. So what?

    All this is, is the NYT trying to manufacture cover for a repeal of the DOMA. Now wonder their stock has cratered. They are not a news organization but a newsletter for the Dem party.

  3. Xanthippas says:

    Maybe I’m not following something here, but what’s the difference between a “federal civil union” and a “marriage” if the civil union conveys “most or all of the federal benefits and rights of marriage”? Or I should say, with that distinction in mind it seems quite obvious that what Blankenhorn wants to avoid is the word “marriage.” But how would “federal civil union” be a downgrade, except in semantics? I feel like I’m missing something here.

  4. A.W. says:

    You know, I will say something else. There are people in America facing real discrimination. Like as in “I have been denied my right to an education” kind of discrimination. It gets a little grating to see the constant and endless attention on gay marriage when there are so much more serious issues to be concerned about. Right or wrong, a gay couple can by contract create virtually all of the rights in marriage without any state help at all. Don’t we have bigger game to hunt?

    I personally get sick of it.

  5. Jason Mazzone says:

    Actually, it is not possible to obtain by contract immigration rights, parenting rights, access to health care, social security benefits, veterans benefits, tax benefits, housing benefits, testimonial privileges, and thousands (!) of other goodies available to married couples under federal, state, and local law. The lists of those benefits can be found here: http://www.freedomtomarry.org/get_informed/marriage_basics/protections/lists.php

  6. A.W. says:

    Ah, well, gosh, there are handicapped people who are not even having a chance to obtain an education, but let’s worry about whether the gay man can get cheap health insurance.

    Sheesh.

    Sorry, if we were rational about our priorities, rather than merely being fashionable, there would not be half the hoopla about gay rights.

  7. Ampersand says:

    Under the proposal offered, Congress would deem marriages and civil unions between same-sex couples and recognized under state law to be federal civil unions.

    Think about that. A couple married in Massachusetts would be downgraded to a civil union for purposes of federal law.

    Yes, but under the status quo, a same-sex couple in Massachusetts isn’t recognized at all by federal law. Going from “married in state, nothing at all under federal law” to “married in state, civil union federally” is imperfect and unequal, but it’s still an upgrade, not a downgrade.

  8. Under the proposal offered, Congress would deem marriages and civil unions between same-sex couples and recognized under state law to be federal civil unions.

    Think about that. A couple married in Massachusetts would be downgraded to a civil union for purposes of federal law.

    Yes, but under the status quo, a same-sex couple in Massachusetts isn’t recognized at all by federal law. Going from “married in state, nothing at all under federal law” to “married in state, civil union federally” is imperfect and unequal, but it’s still an upgrade, not a downgrade.