05/31/2013 01:08 pm ET Updated Feb 02, 2016

Why the Argument Against Marriage Fails

Getty Images

As more states vote to support gay marriage and we wait on the Supreme Court's decisions on the issue, it's become practically impossible to avoid discussing gay marriage within my social circles.

My friend's father and I debated the issue over Passover Seder in March. My cousin and I had a long discussion about it on the phone in April. I instructed a couple friends on the implications of the Supreme Court cases over dinner in May.

Neither my cousin nor my friend's father supports gay marriage. But they are not homophobes. They believe that all people should have the freedom to live as they choose, and that everyone should be entitled to government protections and benefits that support their relationships. They also believe that the government has no business intruding into marriage at all and should do away with the entire institution in favor of civil unions for both straight and gay couples.

On the surface, it appears that this is how it used to be, minus recognition for same-sex relationships. Prior to the early 19th century, when the idea of civil marriage spread as a reaction against the Catholic Church in Europe, marriage was primarily a religious institution. In England and France, for example, only marriages performed by clerics were recognized as valid. However, even when marriage was a distinctly religious institution, it commingled with the legal, civil realm. Marriages performed by clerics were recognized as valid by the government, and that recognition brought with it certain legal rights. For instance, children born outside a validly recognized religious marriage in England could not automatically inherit the property of their parents. Thus, even when marriage was almost exclusively controlled by the church, it could not be and was not divorced from the civil arena.

Still, as marriage in America today is primarily a civil mechanism with only unofficial religious undertones, my cousin and friend's father may be right. It is theoretically possible and probably best to dispense with the entire institution of marriage in favor of a civil system that isn't laced with any religious significance. All the government needs to do is rename "marriage" to "civil union," and the heated debate surrounding gay marriage instantly goes away. If the law does not recognize any gay or straight couple's right to marry but grants each type of couple the same rights under civil unions, there will be equality for all, and the debate about the sanctity of marriage can make its way back to the religious realm in which it belongs.

Nevertheless, as easy as changing "marriage" to "civil union" is on paper, it's practically impossible to accomplish in the real world. Whether viewed from a religious or civil perspective, marriage in the United States has a long, unwavering history. The foundations of civil marriage in America predate those of Europe. In the 16th century, the Protestant Reformation rejected the concept of religious marriage. Martin Luther declared marriage to be "a worldly thing ... that belongs to the realm of government." Seventeenth-century English Puritans passed an act of parliament asserting "marriage to be no sacrament," making marriage purely secular and allowing a justice of the peace to perform a marriage ceremony instead of a minister. Although the Restoration abolished this law and reverted to the old religious marriage system in England, the Puritans brought their concept of marriage to America, where it survived and evolved over the past three centuries. Despite the birth of a civil marriage system in the 17th century, however, religious significance permeates American marriages to this very day.

To do away with this historic institution is technically possible but practically extremely unlikely. Creating a system of civil unions across the 50 states would be unprecedented. The issue would also undoubtedly be contentious, as most Americans support the institution of marriage, evidenced by the ongoing, heated debates about same-sex marriage happening across the country. Maybe I am simply not creative enough to do so, but I cannot imagine how an at best minimally popular movement to dispense with marriage could do away with a powerful, historic institution in a country that cannot pass even minimally stricter gun control laws when a whopping 90 percent of the public supports them.

So although my friends and loved ones may have legitimate ideological reasons for not supporting gay marriage, I cannot agree with their position. Moreover, I would like to encourage those in my social circle and others who believe as they do to look beyond ideology to the practical implications of their positions. If the issue comes down to another vote in Florida (where both men reside) -- and it likely will someday relatively soon -- I do not know if my cousin or friend's father will vote against gay marriage, but I worry that they might. And I worry that others might vote against it for similar reasons.

A vote against gay marriage is not a vote against the institution of marriage itself. It is, however, a vote against the idea that consenting gay adults who spend their lives together deserve the same legal protections and benefits as their straight counterparts. If, as my cousin and friend's father say, they are not homophobic and want to live in a country in which all people are treated equally, their ideological position against the entire institution of marriage is, as a practical matter, incompatible with their ideological position that all people deserve the same legal rights.

Marriage will always have religious significance. But, for better or for worse, it is also a wholly separate civil institution. Like the religious beliefs that inform marriage, its civil history is also powerful and not easy to do away with. In the form that the institution of marriage stands today, gay marriage is the only legitimate vehicle to provide millions of consenting American adults with the same rights and privileges that millions more already enjoy.

Despite their positions on the subject, both my cousin and my friend's father are married. It's about time that their gay friends and family members can do the same.

Follow Daniel Davidson's blog, Pulse of My Nation.