Years ago, when I was living in Brazil, I attended a large Roman Catholic wedding in a cathedral. It was about as religious a ceremony as one could imagine--the archbishop performed the rites. After the ceremony the guests assembled outside for canapés and drinks before being whisked away to dinner elsewhere. As I mingled with the crowd, I sought out the bride and groom to wish them well--but they were nowhere to be found.
I made some inquiries, and to my surprise was told that the couple were in the process of getting married by a justice of the peace in a civil ceremony. Under Brazilian law, the church wedding, which had both religious significance and personal meaning for the participants, had no legal standing. In order for the participants to have the range of rights and responsibilities associated with marriage--relating to children, property, inheritance, and similar matters--they needed to have the state sanction their union.
What a simple idea, and one that fits perfectly with the American separation of Church and State. All that is needed is to create a name for the formal, legal bond--perhaps something like State Approved Two Adult Relationship (SATAR). In addition, any religious or secular groups can have any ceremonies they like, in conformity with whatever beliefs and traditions they may have, and may call the resulting relationships "marriage," or any other term they wish. They are free to impose whatever rules they choose, within their religion or organization, regarding the conduct of the participants, and imposing whatever penalties for infractions they wish--including exclusion/excommunication from the group.
The American problem seems to me to arise from using the same word, "marriage," and often the same formal ceremony as well, to apply to both the civil and the religious union. By using two different words and, for those who wish it, two different ceremonies, the problem is solved.
(I understand that there are some people who oppose all gays, or all gay relationships, or the separation of Church and State, or who insist that "marriage" be a simultaneously religious and secular term, and that no "solution" will satisfy them. There are, however, those who for religious or other reasons are troubled by the state sanctioning gay relationships with the term "marriage," but who also want all people to have equal rights. This solution would allow them to join with others who do not share their reservations.)
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