Civility is sorely lacking in discussion of civil unions


POSTED: Wednesday, March 04, 2009

The Oxford American dictionary defines “;civil”; as “;relating to ordinary citizens and their concerns, as distinct from military or ecclesiastical matters.”; Listed as synonyms are “;secular”; and “;nonreligious.”;

Union is “;the action or fact of joining or being joined,”; with secondary definitions as “;harmony or agreement.”;

When the two words are linked, they form a point of disagreement that can hardly be described as polite and courteous, another meaning for “;civil.”;

It doesn't have to be this way, but it is and will be as long as debate about civil unions is framed by religious tenets, tied to codes of beliefs when the foundation ought to be about equal rights, which is the basic principle of American life.

Organized religion and other faith-based groups have had inordinate influence in secular matters, which is not to say their members shouldn't be heard, for there is much good will and compassion in those who cleave to Christian scriptures or other sacred books.

It is an inability or unwillingness, mostly by a powerful few, to separate beliefs from the rules that govern the secular world that has hardened consideration of civil unions as it has done with abortion and birth control.

Because of this, inflexible lines have been drawn. Irrational assertions — that homosexuality will be taught in public schools, that the cost of government entitlement benefits will skyrocket, that churches will be forced to honor civil unions, that procreation will be halted and bring the end to the human race, that gays and lesbians will be accorded special status — have been pitched into the discussion.

The most emphatic of these fears emerges from a suspicion that civil unions will be equated with marriage, which is really a privileged relationship accorded by government.

Many couples have already chosen to enter a form of civil union, married legally without the sanctions and ceremony of religion. But government does not deny them the financial benefits and rights simply because they stood before a judge, rather than a minister or priest, when pledging to love and honor their partner.

Neither then should government deny benefits to two people who share the same gender, a principle a majority of state lawmakers recognize in moving forward a bill that would allow civil unions.

Marriages won't be invalidated and civil unions would pose no more of a threat to them than the individuals who say their vows and then ignore them, who place their marriages behind work and hobbies, who are unfaithful or unsupportive.

Often repeated in arguments about civil unions is that a majority of people in Hawaii has already decided against same-sex marriage. That's not quite true. More than 10 years ago, 285,384 out of 412,520 voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution that gave the Legislature power to say who can and cannot marry. (Nearly 200,000 of those registered to vote didn't cast ballots.)

Civil unions will not demand the blessings of religion. Churches would not have to accept gay couples into their midst. Only grace, goodness and the rightness in character and conduct can move them to do so.