As the Maryland General Assembly has wrestled with a bill that would redefine marriage, The Baltimore Sun’s Julie Bykowicz and Annie Linskey have wrestled with what to call the bill as they report on the debate.
The bill is formally called the Civil Marriage Protection Act. Civil marriage, of course, we already have. You pay the state a fee for a license to marry, the marriage is attested to by a qualified civil or religious authority, and you are in business with rights and responsibilities for children (if any), property, insurance, and a whole set of other legal statuses.*
The question is whether civil marriage, now defined legally as between a man and a woman, is to be extended to couples of two men or two women. Religious marriage, however it is understood by church, synagogue, mosque, or temple, doesn’t enter into it.
Calling it civil marriage, however, is problematic because of the potential confusion with civil union, which would be an equivalent of civil marriage not called marriage.
Proponents of the bill under consideration like to refer to marriage equality, because equality sounds like a good thing to everybody. They would prefer that to the other terms commonly used, same-sex marriage and gay marriage. I presume that their preference for the euphemistic term rises from their knowledge of the emotionally negative—irrational—reaction that some people have to homosexuality.**
But extending secular marriage rights to same-sex couples or gay couples, whichever term you prefer, is precisely what the bill is about.
So Ms. Bykowicz and Ms. Linskey quote proponents using the language they prefer and quote opponents using the language they prefer, and when writing neutrally about the bill use the most readily understood and accurate terms. Whether the terms same-sex marriage and gay marriage are aesthetically pleasing is immaterial; they are accurately descriptive, and they’re what we’ve got to work with.
*There are people who will argue that marriage is all about procreation. They are mistaken. If I may repeat myself, and frankly, you can’t stop me, people who think that marriage is not about property have never read Jane Austen.
**There is also difficulty with the term the other side uses, traditional marriage. Which tradition? The polygamous arrangements of the Hebrew patriarchs and kings of Israel? Arranged marriages? First cousins or not? Divorce permitted or prohibited? The Deceased Wife’s Sister Act? Marriage with concubinage? With mistresses? The marriage-divorce-marriage-divorce-marriage pattern that some anthropologists call serial polygamy? Dowries?