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On relationship certificates and sarriage

Despite the ridicule, two of the “quirkier” submissions on marriage equality drive straight to the heart of the issue.

Whereas most submitters have argued for and against marriage equality, two have gained a small amount of attention for proposing new solutions altogether. Graeme Pirie advocates for the state just to issue “relationship certificates” instead of marriage licences, and Russell Morrison proposes a new term “sarriage” for same-sex unions. The solutions can seem outlandish at first, but should get credit for being honest attempts to reconcile the differences between the two sides of the debate.

What’s in a name?
What Messrs Pirie and Morrison implicitly observe is that the debate lies only over the use of a single word. The debate is not about tangible rights (such as property and dependants), other than the legislated right to use the term “marriage”. Their solutions seek to sidestep the issue completely, while upholding equality in the tangible rights.

Mr Morrison’s solution is to use a new name, “sarriage”, for same-sex unions. Mr Pirie’s solution is to have the state duck out of the celebratory side, and just issue certificates to couples who want their relationships recognised.

Mr Morrison makes an admirable attempt to satisfy everyone, but he misses the liberals’ main point: that the existence of a different term sanctioned by the state constitutes discrimination. His idea would have made sense if his new word had instead applied to everyone, with “marriage” removed from the statute books. Then he reaches his objective: the proponents get their use of a single term, and opponents get their definition left untouched.

That is, in effect, what Mr Pirie proposed, but his new word is just an existing one: “relationship”. Mr Pirie says that all of the associated religious and cultural rituals “need not be any business of the state”. The state has a “legitimate interest in recording these contracts” (to manage those tangible rights), but this can be achieved without defining words like “marriage”.

So why not?
It appears that select committee members were not so keen. The NZ Herald reports that “committee members said [Mr Pirie’s submission] was an interesting idea, but would not resolve the argument that marriage was a union between a man and woman.”  This misses the point: Mr Pirie’s solution is that the state need not, and should not, concern itself with this argument in the first place.

The most passionate advocates on either side would probably balk at this, feeling that it renders their cause irrelevant. Yet it need not. Other people can engage in discussion on the definition of “marriage” without state attention; the issues involved are fascinating. But there’s no administrative reason why the state should care about what is really just semantics.

The question Mr Pirie’s solution raises is: When groups differ over the most correct use of a word, is it for the state to legislate an answer? Phrased like that, the instinctive response is obviously “no”. But both sides would probably argue that the state must intervene in order to protect the welfare of its citizens, and if that means legislating the meaning of a word, so be it.

Who would win?
To bear out that claim, it’s worth imagining what would happen if the state kept out of marriage and only issued relationship certificates.

Organisations would pretty much be free to, or not to, marry any couple they wanted. (We assume polygamy would remain criminal.) Churches opposed to same-sex marriage would be free not to solemnise them, and individuals would be free to refuse to call them “marriage”. Organisations and people who support gay “marriage” would be free to carry them out. Just like straight couples, it would all be without state backing. All couples, though, would have their “relationship” recognised by the state.

In a nutshell, just like how proponents envisage the situation with state-enforced marriage equality. Most advocates say they wouldn’t force churches to perform same-sex marriages. The desire to defend the theoretical ban on denying the validity of a marriage has been lukewarm at best. All they want is the right for same-sex couples to call themselves “married”. In practice, a Relationships Act would look like a victory for the liberals.

The difference is that gay spouses would not be able to point to statute books to show sceptics that they are “married”. This might diminish rhetorical force a little. Straight couples lose that privilege too, but being uncontested, that’s of little practical effect. A key liberal concern of the status quo is that, by using different terms, the state implies homosexual inferiority. The state can hardly be accused of this when it avoids the topic. It could be accused of not proactively combatting it, but a few words in the statute books aren’t about to sway someone from their religious convictions.

It seems more a loss for conservatives, who have to put up with others calling “married” whomever they want. Conservatives want the state not to redefine marriage. They get that: if the state doesn’t define “marriage”, it certainly doesn’t redefine it. But if the conservative reasoning is that marriage, as the foundation of the family, needs to be “protected” for all, then even allowing other uses of the term would tread on the same concerns.

That seems paternalistic. If the state redefined marriage, conservatives could say it is meddling with an institution that they conceive of in a certain way. The claim becomes toothless with Mr Pirie’s proposal. Their concern for others is kind, but in reality, the welfare-maximising “family” is different for different people. Those in non-traditional structures are, again, unlikely to have their practices swayed by the statute books. Meanwhile, conservatives could continue with their own definition, uphold and even promote the family in their own ways, and rest assured that the state won’t get in the way. A victory as good as one could expect.

It wouldn’t end the debate, of course. In the short term, without reference to an arbiter (the legislature), people would have to become more accepting of others’ opinions on marriage and family. That’s probably a good thing. In the long term, the semantics of that single word would evolve organically. For us to legislatively define the word, it needs somehow to protect citizens’ welfare. Compared to defining it wrong, this is obvious, but compared to not defining it, it rests on the question: would a statutory definition change minds? It is unclear how. Mr Pirie’s proposal deserves more attention.

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