Gay Marriage: The Power Of The Word

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New Hampshire is now engaged in a legislative debate over the word "marriage"--nothing else. Not state benefits or anything material--just the word.

Gay couples in New Hampshire have the same benefits as straight married couples under the state's "civil unions" law, but bills passed by the sate legislature would change that term to "civil marriage." Gov. John Lynch (D) says those laws will need to carry greater protections for gay marriage's opponents if the word "marriage" is going to be used.

Lynch said today that he will not sign gay marriage bills passed by the state's legislature unless they include stronger provisions to ensure that churches and fraternal benefit societies (e.g. Elks, Masons, Knights of Columbus) aren't forced to recognize or conduct gay marriages if they don't want to.

"At its core, HB 436 simply changes the term 'civil union' to 'civil marriage.' Given the cultural, historical and religious significance of the word marriage, this is a meaningful change," Lynch said today.

To protect ideological opponents of gay marriage from that change, he proposed his own language for the bill (viewable here), stating that religious institutions cannot be forced to conduct gay marriages or offer services, facilities, advantages, accommodations, goods, or privileges related to marriages that they don't deem valid. The same extends to individuals and groups under the aegis of religious institutions; the same extends to fraternal benefit societies.

Lynch says Connecticut and Vermont gay marriage laws already have similar protections.

What's interesting here is that new laws, as Lynch says, would not change the benefits afforded to gay couples at all--it would simply apply the term "civil marriage" as opposed to "civil union." Lynch's proposal is meant to protect gay marriage's opponents, ideologically, from the power of the word.

His language is about protecting from incursion on beliefs, and that's one of the arguments against gay marriage: if you start applying the term "marriage" to gays, it corrupts the institution of marriage for those who believe it's between a man and a woman.

Lynch's proposal itself, even, may be more symbolic than concrete. Pastors can already refuse to marry people for their own reasons, and institutions generally can discriminate at will as long as they're not taking state money (or if the discrimination is employment related). In other words, I'm not sure if we'll soon see a Supreme Court case against a church for not marrying a gay couple. Fraternal benefits organizations may be subject to non-discrimination laws I'm not aware of.

On the flip side, Lynch says it's important to apply the term "marriage" to gays, and that separate is not equal--linguistic or otherwise.

"That a civil law that differentiates between their committed relationships and those of heterosexual couples undermines both their dignity and the legitimacy of their families," Lynch said today.

And that's a main argument for gay marriage: if gay couples have government benefits afforded to straight couples, but the government refuses to acknowledge the word gays use to describe that arrangement, while it recognizes the word straights use, that's demeaning.

If nothing else, Lynch's proposal allows us to see the legislative baggage that comes with the word, separated entirely from benefits. We're now in the territory of linguistic policy, and the power of the word can finally be measured purely on its own terms as this legislative debate unfolds.

As Lynch himself said, the linguistic change is a meaningful one--and now we're seeing that in a back-and-forth between New Hampshire's governor and its legislature.

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Chris Good is a political reporter for ABC News. He was previously an associate editor at The Atlantic and a reporter for The Hill.

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