Once again, separate is not equal

Last Wednesday, the highest court of New Jersey ruled that state laws must be changed to allow equal rights for heterosexual and homosexual couples. They have left the contentious question of how to label those couples up to the legislature, however. Do we call a committed, legally recognized same-sex partnership a “civil union” or a “marriage”?

We vote for the latter, and we hope the New Jersey legislature does the same. With religious complications factored out, there is no legal justification for the exclusion of homosexuals from traditional matrimony.

Semantics has become a fundamental and unfortunate part of the gay marriage debate. Some people oppose marriage rights for gay couples because they believe gay relationships are morally wrong. Some oppose not the couples, but the terminology of calling gay couples “married” in the eyes of the state.

Legally, marriage is a contract entered into by two people, restricted in most states to a man and a woman. It seems simple to note, however, that two men or two women are just as able to enter into a contract as a man and a woman.

Unfortunately, we use the same words to describe a legal marriage as we do for a marriage recognized by a specific religion or other institution. In the states’ eyes, any couple (any heterosexual couple, currently) can run to the Justice of the Peace and be married. Or you can have your reverend marry you in the Baptist Church. Those who are morally and religiously opposed to gay marriage would do well to remember that at no point will any church have to marry a gay couple or recognize their marriage if its against the church’s policy. No part of government is going to force Catholics or Baptists to recognize gay marriages in their church, any more than the state is going to force a Baptist church to marry two non-Baptists.

If we are going to enter into the debate on gay marriage, we must make that distinction first: A marriage by law and a marriage in church are two separate things. Few seem to ever point that out, even though we use the same word to describe legal marriage and religious marriage; they are, in fact, fundamentally different.

For instance, a Catholic believes that no two people may get married in their church unless those people are members in good standing of the Catholic Church. Marriages in specific churches are already restricted as the religious leaders see fit, according to the laws of those churches. The attempt to impose upon a state’s definition of marriage the definition held by one particular faith or another is to let the church influence the government.

On the one hand, it seems irrelevant whether same-sex couples in New Jersey get to have “marriages” or “civil unions.” If the rights afforded them are truly equal to their heterosexual neighbors, New Jersey legislators can call it whatever they want.

On the other hand, stamping same-sex unions with a different term, even though they are now identical to opposite-sex unions, smacks of a “separate but equal” mentality. For this reason, the New Jersey legislature should term all binding, contractual unions of this nature — whether they be same-sex or opposite-sex — marriage.

We applaud New Jersey, but we are saddened that terminology has become such a large part of the argument against gay marriage. The solution may be to call the legal component of all exclusive, contractual partnerships between any two people, “civil unions” — but we don’t expect such sweeping change any time soon. In the end, we only urge those on both sides of the issue to make the distinction between marriage of state and marriage of church. Then we could take one step away from letting religious beliefs confound and influence this debate.