Domestic Partnerships Split the Baby

Published Friday, Feb. 8, 2008 in The Register-Guard.

Domestic partnerships are now the law of the land in Oregon, offering same-sex couples the same rights and responsibilities as husbands and wives. The state legislature cut the baby in half, choosing not to please anyone completely. But a modestly proposed amendment to the current law could lead the way to a sturdy solution that earns everyone’s support and leads the nation past the current debate.

Supporters of same-sex couples regret that domestic partnerships have been relegated to a separate category from marriages. (In fact, the term “civil union” was avoided to skirt any confusion with marriage.) The assurance that a domestic partnership is legally equivalent to marriage provides them cold comfort. “Separate but equal” has been tried in our society, without good effect. The social stigma of anything less than marriage portends another generation of second class citizenship — this time for a group whose sexual preferences don’t match the majority’s.

Defenders of marriage fear the future no less. They see domestic partnerships as an assault on the bedrock of civilization. They worry that legitimizing anything less than a lifelong committed relationship with an eye toward procreation and child-rearing will hasten society’s doom.

Caught between these strong views, the agnostic state recognizes the value of strong social bonds, stable family units, and clear conveyance of property. The moral issue of who may marry whom concerns the government only indirectly.

Both sides have promised to continue fighting. As the battle continues, the state must realize that one side will eventually win, and the other side will be very unhappy. A halfway solution that pleases no one and matters to everyone becomes untenable in a democracy, sooner or later.

Oregon should blunt the sharpest attacks from both sides by making domestic partnerships available also to heterosexual couples.

If enough couples of every sexual preference chose domestic partnerships instead of marriage, the social stigma of “marriage lite” would fade away on its own.

State Senator Vicki Walker prepared the way for this. She noticed that the state’s marriage license paperwork offered couples the opportunity for husband and wife to keep their own surnames or for both to take the husband’s. By requiring the state to add another check box, Oregon couples may now marry and both take the wife’s surname. Why not?

Adding a check box has a quiet power. “Are you registering today for a marriage or a domestic partnership? Please check the appropriate box.”

This innovation would put Oregon in the forefront of a cutting-edge issue. Some straight couples want to live together but don’t feel ready for marriage. They still believe in the “sanctity” of “marriage,” however they define both terms. They are willing to “save themselves” for marriage, even if they don’t mean sexually. They want to feel secure that the state won’t second-guess their commitment, even as they retain the right to question it themselves.

The state could accelerate this trend and align itself with the defenders of marriage by offering only domestic partnerships to partners who have been divorced. As the bumper sticker says so well: “One man. One woman. One time.” This would challenge some to show the courage of their conviction. Whatever damage same-sex unions might inflict on the institution of marriage, it pales in comparison to what havoc has been wreaked already by divorcing couples.

Before long, the couples who are married will be outnumbered vastly by those who are domestically partnered. Once Oregonians see that lasting marriages are rare, they may agree that offering them to gay and lesbian couples couldn’t hurt and may well help the institution they cherish.

Then again, the state might want to consider the “whole baby” approach, refusing to split anything as important as this. The state would be wise to offer domestic partnership as the only license required or available to any couple from the state of Oregon. As long as the domestic partnership license is “in all ways legally equivalent” to marriage, then the state’s needs are met. Government could then step aside and let the churches, synagogues, and mosques sort out who can be married and who can’t.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) is a divorced father of two. Feedback from readers for this and other commentaries can be sent or viewed right here.