"If we are to prevent the meaning of marriage from being changed forever, our nation must enact a constitutional amendment to protect marriage in America," President George Bush said February 24. However, opponents of the amendment argue that the definition of marriage is only a matter of semantics. Geoffrey Nunberg argued in the New York Times that what really matters is "the way ordinary people use the word." If through civil unions (as endorsed by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry) gay couples can obtain the benefits of marriage, what difference does the word marriage make?

Quite a bit, say a number of Christian leaders who support civil unions but oppose same-sex marriage. They see civil unions as a means of economic justice—but not just for homosexuals. In fact, they would rather see such legislation avoid mention of sexuality altogether.

"It may well be that for the sake of public justice we need to recognize different kinds of households, but I would never start that by primary reference to so-called gay households." said Mary Stewart Van Leeuwen, professor of psychology and philosophy at Eastern University. "[Civil unions] could include things like single people looking after aging parents. It could include, as in my own family, two bachelor brothers and a sister who ran a farm their whole life." Defined this way, she says, civil unions would actually preserve the uniqueness of marriage.

Clarifying the issue
People can call anything they want marriage, says James Skillen, president of the Center for Public Justice, but "humans aren't free to change the structure of reality. One of the central things about marriage, which is that it's grounded in heterosexual intercourse, is something that gay people can't have."

For Fuller Theological Seminary president Richard Mouw, gay marriage is much more than an oxymoron. "It is not only inappropriate, but it is dangerously sinful to describe a relationship between two persons of the same gender as a marriage," he said. "And the state simply ought not to legislate that kind of arrangement and build that kind of arrangement into our system of social life."

Christians should not shy away from making theology the center of their thinking and argument against same-sex marriage, said Mouw. Marriage, he says, "isn't created by human contracts, but it is something that was created by God as a life long faithful partnership between a man and a woman. One of the major goals that marriage serves is to propagate the human race and to promote healthy families within that propagation, but also to model the mental faithfulness between God and his people, and Christ and his church."

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Gay marriage fallout
But theological arguments aren't the only ones that civil union supporters are using in their case against gay marriage.

"As a Christian feminist, here's what worries me: It may well be that, irony of ironies, in promoting gay households we may be promoting misogyny." said Van Leeuwen. "People who are gay-positive tend to think that whatever is good for gays is automatically good for people who care about justice for women." But most gay couples raising children are women. "We know from lots of intercultural and cross-cultural research that the most egalitarian societies and families are the ones where fathers are involved in hands-on nurtured childcare," she said. She acknowledges that the "gender injustice" of fatherlessness is already a problem in today's society without gay marriage, but added, "I don't think we should add to the possibility that there would be more of it."

There will certainly be other unintended and unforeseen consequences to such a radical overhaul of marriage, said Van Leeuwen. "Forty years ago everybody thought [no-fault] divorce was the solution to everyone's problems, and it was not going to be harmful to adults and children. It was going to be beneficial to them," she said. "We have 40 years of data on the fallout of the divorce culture and social scientists all across the political spectrum, religious and atheist, are pretty much agreed that divorce is not a minor blimp on the developmental landscape of anybody.I think we're going to find that the fallout of this in terms of people's development is probably not entirely what we expected."

Gay marriage may not just change the development of children, said the Center for Public Justice's Skillen; it may change society's entire concept of parenthood. Because gay couples cannot produce children on their own, Skillen predicts, hopeful parents may seek to "rent wombs" and deny children the right to know their biological parents. "It is going to be increasingly possible to produce, buy, and sell children, because in addition to adoption, that is the only way homosexual couples can 'have' children."

Rethinking civil unions
Few evangelicals disagree with such opposition to gay marriage. A November poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 81 percent of white evangelical Protestants oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally. Only 12 percent supported such actions.

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But Skillen, Mouw, Van Leeuwen, and others are part of a small minority: evangelicals who oppose gay marriage but support some form of civil union legislation. The Pew poll found that 20 percent of white evangelical Protestants agree to "allowing gay and lesbian couples to enter into legal agreements with each other that would give them many of the same rights as married couples." That's only an 8-percentage point difference from those who supported gay marriage. Three quarters of white evangelicals polled opposed such benefits.

Likewise, several Christian political advocacy organizations have formed a network called the Arlington Group to press for a federal marriage amendment specifically banning such legislation.

Mouw says he has "more sympathy" for such efforts than he did in 1999, when he moderated a Christianity Today roundtable discussion of the pros and cons of civil unions. "It just looks like anything that we do that concedes something in this direction will simply be used as a stepping stone to push us even further in the direction that we don't want to go," he said.

Though Mouw blames the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and other municipalities for forcing the issue, he still believes that Christians cannot merely oppose gay marriage. "We need to translate [beliefs] into concerns about policies and the public arena in a pluralistic society" already in marital turmoil, he said.

"We are seeing in our society an increasing proliferation of lifestyles. We ought to consider extending beneficial social and legal arrangements for persons who live together in the same household and are not married."

Skillen agrees that it may be necessary to provide for such legal arrangements. However, he believes that making homosexuality the center of civil union legislation would discriminate against non-gay, committed relationships. " [If] gay people living together in bonded commitments should not be discriminated against, or kept from the privileges that marriage partners get … then it's not right to discriminate against me living with my mother and taking care of her," he said. A broadly worded civil union without regard to sexual practice can be a biblical way "to help people care for one another," Skillen said.

Such carefully worded civil unions are "probably the last opportunity to preserve marriage as a gender-based, or sex-based institution," said David Jones, professor of theology and ethics at Covenant Theological Seminary (and who, with Van Leeuwen, Mouw, and Dallas Theological Seminary's Stephen Spencer, participated in CT's 1999 forum). "I am for tolerance and some accommodation to folks who have homosexual orientation." However, he concedes, marriage is the key issue for gay rights groups, and that is why the Massachusetts court rejected allowing civil unions in place of traditional marriage.

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What now?
There's a clear urgency to discussing the difference between marriage and its civil benefits said Mouw. He's just sorry that it hasn't happened earlier, outside the political realm "I think that we need serious discussion, and I think that it's a shame that I haven't seen any major conferences where Christian sociologists and Christian psychologists and philosophers and theologians get together and talk about these things" he said. "The only time evangelicals get together to talk about this is when the religious right gathers its forces to aim at electoral debates and electoral platforms."

Van Leeuwen agrees, and says biblical analysis of civil union legislation and other family justice issues have been ignored. "There are a lot of churches that would rather wring their hands over gay marriage," she said, adding that Christians have much to do to if they want to protect the sanctity of marriage. "We're practicing serial monogamy ourselves," she said. "Judgment begins in the House of the Lord, and we haven't been very good stewards of marriage."

While promoting justice through civil unions, these supporters say, Christians can demonstrate that the argument for traditional marriage is more than opposing an immoral lifestyle. "Even those people who don't acknowledge the will of God for marriage are living off the benefits of God's ordinances, God's design for human relationships, and for social flourishing," said Mouw. "I think that's the case we need to make."

Rob Moll is assistant online editor for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere:

Christianity Today's 1999 forum is available from the CTLibrary.

The Pew Research Center's survey on religious belief and homosexuality is available online.

Christianity Today's past coverage of the gay marriage debate includes:

Why Gay Marriage Would Be Harmful | Institutionalizing homosexual marriage would be bad for marriage, bad for children, and bad for society. (Feb. 19, 2004)
Let No Law Put Asunder | A constitutional amendment defending marriage is worth the effort. (Jan. 26, 2004)
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Massachusetts Court Backs Gay Marriage | Christians say gay activists will overturn marriage laws (Dec. 10, 2003)
'A Man and a Woman' | Activists say the Federal Marriage Amendment will be the defining issue in the next election. (Nov. 24, 2003)
The Next Sexual Revolution | By practicing what it preaches on marriage, the church could transform society. (Aug. 27, 2003)
The Marriage Battle Begins | Profamily and gay activists agree: Texas decision sets significant precedent. (Aug. 11, 2003)
Canada Backs Gay Marriages | Conservatives say decision could put pressure on dissenting churches. (July 16, 2003)
Marriage in the Dock | Massachusetts case on gay marriage could set off chain reaction. (April 25, 2003)

Christian Conservatives Split on Federal Marriage Amendment | Law would protect marriage from courts, but legislatures could still extend marital benefits to same-sex unions. (July 20, 2002)

Defining Marriage | Conservatives advocate amendment to preserve traditional matrimony. (October 1, 2001)

No Balm in Denver | Episcopalians defer debate over same-sex blessings for another three years. (July 17, 2001)

Marriage Laws Embroil Legislatures | New Englanders push for domestic-partner benefits. (April 26, 2001)

Presbyterians Propose Ban on Same-Sex Ceremonies | Change to church constitution, which passes by only 17 votes, now goes to presbyteries. (July 5, 2001)

Sticking With the Status Quo | United Methodists reject gay marriage, ordination. (May 15, 2000)

Presbyterians Vote Down Ban on Same-Sex Unions | Opponents say vague wording led to defeat. (March 29, 2001)

States Consider Laws on Same-Sex Unions California to vote on 'limit on marriage' in March (Jan. 10, 1999)