Over a decade ago, the French government effectively tackled the controversial issue of granting legal status and benefits to same-sex partnerships by creating an entirely different kind and category of civil union, one that obviates the terms "marriage" and "same-sex" from the scheme altogether -- and the political ideologies that now go along with them.
France's Civil Pact of Solidarity, or PaCS, authorizes and provides a domestic couple -- any kind of couple -- all of the benefits, both social and financial, bestowed by traditional marriage. Assuming that one or both of the members wishing to enter into a civil union are French or EU citizens, the only other eligibility requirements for PaCS is proof of a shared address and bank account for a minimum of six months. Not only may LGBT as well as heterosexual people enter into PaCS with a given partner, but, hypothetically and legally speaking, cohabitating partners such as brothers and sisters, old friends, even an elderly person and his or her caregiver, for example, qualify as well -- so long as they trust one another enough to do so.
For the only "catch" to PaCS (and what de-incentivizes new roommates from getting hitched a week after they find each other on Craigslist), is a familiar bind: along with the rights and benefits bestowed by official partnership come the shared responsibility and accountability concerning debts, wealth, health, children, and so on that the marriage contract, for its part, likewise assumes. In France, the questions of sexuality or even that of romance between partners are not relevant to the process of granting an official union, but commitment and trust in one's partner are as integral to the contract as ever.
The number of French couples-heterosexual couples, that is -- who are choosing to unite via PaCS rather than be married as man and wife increases dramatically every year; simply put, PaCS has become wildly popular. To instate a new class of civil union modeled after PaCS in the US would be a great boon to this county and would resolve many of the socio-cultural disputes related to institutionalized marriage, tax benefits, and homosexual partnerships in which our populace is currently engaged. By legislating the possibility of a choice for every citizen between civil partnership and "marriage," the latter could remain strictly that what social conservatives assert that "marriage" definitively means: a union between a man and a woman, and, according to the beliefs of many, a union under God.
History and tradition supports this definition of marriage, and to re-confirm that only heterosexual couples may participate in marriage would surely help to satisfy many conservatives, and perhaps even please some. At the same time, if initiated, a new civil union or pact would be available to any and all mutually-dependent American domestic partners who would like to take advantage of it. To create the choice between these two forms of partnership (traditional marriage on one end, civil union a la PaCS on the other) would fortify the core precepts on which this country was founded: it would grant anyone the freedom to define for themselves what and for whom a union means, and it would give any and every committed couple who chooses to enter into such a union equal status, protections, and benefits under the law.
The institution of marriage need not be replaced, or even changed, at this point -- it need only be supplemented with a less paternalistic, but no less ideal, form of union.