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Commentary: Would garriage get us to common ground?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 27, 2009 - The recent discussions of Miss California's comments against gay marriage have sparked increased dialogue about the issue. With the court decision in Iowa, the legislation passed in Vermont and a proposed parity law in Massachusetts, those fighting for equal marriage rights have had much of the recent spotlight.

I find it interesting that, in more than one conversation with people who I know in different contexts, we came to the same conclusion. Of course as a psychologist, I understand that some of what is at work are the unique dynamics of my personal circle. We do tend to pick friends who think like us, and furthermore we conform to our friends' thinking over time.

But my hope is that it's bigger than me. Perhaps we are moving toward an emerging national consensus - one that pushes us to think outside of our camps and consider how we might have equality while also respecting each other's stances.

The place we came to in our conversations was that clearly for many people, the sanctity of marriage is between a man and a woman. This opinion is often rooted in religion. I feel that it is futile to argue, because it is an entrenched point of view that is unlikely to change. I respect the perspective and consider it a valid argument.

Where I get stuck is the fact that we, as the government, are the grantors of such a right. So, it ceases to be simply a religious argument. Separation of church and state is alive in theory, but in practice we've gotten things quite tangled over the years.

One conversation was with a faculty colleague, Dr. Narendra Jaggi, who is a physicist but also teaches a first-year writing seminar, "Rights and Wrongs" on critical thinking. Class members discuss controversial issues, which often includes gay marriage. After many rounds of dialogue, he reported that in recent semesters, students have all ended up in the same place. To respect the fact that all citizens should have access to the benefits and protections granted by marriage (e.g. related to taxes, health care, estate planning) while also respecting the traditional definition of marriage being between a man and woman, we should separate the two concepts.

Marriage should be granted through the church. However, the government should be responsible for granting only the societal benefits currently accessed by men and women who are married. So, rather than saying the joining of a man and woman is "marriage" and the commitment between two people of the same sex is "civil union," we should separate the religious from societal rights. To gain the legal benefits of the current conceptualization of marriage, a couple must apply to the government. However, if they want to be married in the eyes of the church, they must go through the church.

Because the government grants it, this new concept has been coined garriage (not because it allows gays to be married as I originally thought). If a church chooses to marry same sex couples, it can do so. But there would no longer be inequities in access to the legal rights associated this marriage.

In some ways the Catholic church has lead the way in this separation. It has obligations to enter and end marriage above and beyond that of the government. You could be divorced in the eyes of the law and free to marry again, but the Catholic Church might not see your first marriage as absolved.

Why is this important? Why shouldn't we just be content to let states decide? Well, the reality is that marriage laws are universal and recognized by the federal government. You can get married in Michigan, and have that union recognized in Alaska. Those rights you received are not as easily challenged in a court of law. However, this reciprocity does not exist with civil unions. So with this compromise, garriage would be universally recognized and would carry all the benefits and protections currently granted through marriage.

I'm sure I'm not the first person to put this idea forward. But I was struck that it emerged as a compromise in separate conversations within several days of each other. My hope is that other people (namely politicians) are having these sorts of conversations where the aim is common ground rather than drawing camp lines.

Kira Hudson Banks, PhD., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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