I live in California and this year one of the propositions on the ballot, Proposition 8, would amend the constitution to define marriage as being exclusively between a man and a woman. It's an attempt to address a sticky matter that occurs at the intersection of politics and religion.
First off, I do have an issue with how matters currently stand. It does appear that the current law carries some negative effects for those who find same sex marriage against their convictions, religious or otherwise.
I don't pretend to have analyzed the the subtleties of the law and how it will interact with various practices, but it has been claimed that it will cause issues for ministers and groups that cannot, within the bounds of their religious beliefs, perform marriages of same sex couples. Commercials in support of Proposition 8 have claimed that such groups may lose their tax exempt status.
If this is true, it essentially puts a state imposed standard upon which religious groups will be eligible for tax exempt status based on a particular issue of their own views on morality, based on their religious beliefs. It will become a litmus test. If you hold to belief A to the point it will constrain your actions, you are ineligible for tax exempt status. If you do not hold to belief A, or at least do not hold it with sufficient conviction for it to constrain your actions, you are eligible for tax exempt status.
So, I think we've established that the law, as it currently stands, does pose a problem.
My response begins with the fact that marriage is a religious concept. It predates civil societies and government involvement in the issue. Marriage commitments and ceremonies, as opposed to simple mating, happened before marriage licenses, retirement benefits, and family insurance coverage were ever invented. Granted, it's a concept that civil society adopted, and modified, as early societies used a fusion of religion and politics to provide a social contract for common good, at the very least for the good of those in power.
Things like a change in legal status that allows for certain rights and responsibilities was added by civil government. These later additions might best be described as a civil union. It allows for two people to tie their lives together in such a way as to facilitate certain rights and responsibilities, like property held in common, that in the event of one partner dying the surviving partner will still have rights to, or shared health insurance based on the employment of one party. I think this is actually something that even most conservatives would agree should be allowed for same sex couples.
It appears that Proposition 8 is, if I'm generous with my assumptions about motivations, a well intentioned attempt to fix a real problem. The current legal situation might lead to government making decisions on which sets of religious beliefs are deserving of tax exempt status and which ones are not. It may also coerce certain groups to allow behaviors that, whether the rest of the world agrees with them or not, they consider to be an evil to be avoided. All that being given, I think Proposition 8 is not an appropriate solution to the problem. It is falling from the frying pan and right into the fire.
Proposition 8, following in the footsteps of previous law, makes an amalgam of civil union, a matter of government, and marriage, a matter of religious tradition, and then proceeds to make a religious proclamation about a specific definition of marriage a matter of constitutional law. It is within the state's power to determine what kind of civil unions it will recognize, it is not however within the state's power to dictate what one must believe in one's religion. This sets up an incredibly dangerous precedent of having a cultural majority impose their religious beliefs upon the general population. Some groups that hold a majority stake in our culture right now might be comfortable with this imposition, but they might not in the not too distant future as California's demographics continue to change.
Making such a legal distinction will allow for easy remedy of several issues. Any given religious tradition should be free to determine if it will recognize same sex unions as marriage or not. The state should not impose upon any group a list of acceptable doctrines and beliefs. On the other hand, the state is not obligated validate through civil union status the marriage of underage children or polygamy. Ideally, marriages and civil unions would be concurrent and maybe facilitated by the same officiant during the same event, but this is not necessary. It would allow each religious tradition to make it's own determination on the issue of same sex marriage while acknowledging same sex couples with the same legal status as a heterosexual couple. It might be possible to have a civil union performed to allow for insurance benefits for a couple that do not have any religious belief and do not wish to be married. It would allow for the state to simply not validate marriages through civil union status when they occur outside of certain parameters.
Put simply, Proposition 8 will institutionalize a common misconception and will dictate religious belief. If we instead separate the concepts of marriage and civil union it will allow religious groups to self determine their own definition of marriage and will allow for all couples, be they heterosexual or homosexual, the same protection under law.
I will be voting no on Proposition 8.