This is the second article in a three-part series where we’ve asked leading Republicans to weigh in from the conservative perspective on civil unions, and whether they should be allowed in Colorado.

It’s About Freedom

By Rob Witwer

The principle of freedom is at the very heart of our American political tradition. So long as citizens do no harm to their neighbors, they’re free to pursue life, liberty and happiness.

Gay people do no harm simply by living together, just as married couples in the same circumstances do no harm. Yet our laws treat them differently. Gay couples need to hire lawyers and draw up complex legal documents to inherit property or make medical decisions for one another. Non-gay couples don’t: by getting married, they get these things automatically.

The difference has real-life consequences. When I sat on the House Judiciary Committee in 2006, John Crisci came to testify on the bill that became Referendum I.

He told this story.

One day John and his partner of 33 years, Michael Tartaglia, went to the gym. They were sitting together on a bench when Michael suddenly collapsed to the floor, felled by a heart attack. The first EMT on the scene advised John to go home and pick up his power of attorney because John would need to prove he had legal authority to make medical decisions for Michael. By the time John had driven home, picked up the papers, and gotten to the hospital, Michael was dead.  

Now all I could think was this: how awful for Michael to die alone, simply because the person he cared most about in the world didn’t happen to have the right papers on hand.

I defy you to hear that story and not be moved.  Moved, and infuriated. Infuriated that our laws didn’t allow these men their right – their right – to be free at the time it mattered most.  People shouldn’t have to hire lawyers and carry around briefcases full of legal documents just to live (and die) as they choose.

Civil unions would simply put into place a set of default legal rules for couples who choose to opt into them. John Crisci could have accompanied Michael Tartaglia to the hospital to be with him when he died.

The only way to justify treating gay people differently is to say that freedom is secondary to government’s interest in manipulating human behavior. Yet this is totally inconsistent with the conservative approach to government in general. When left-leaning social engineers try to coerce behavior in other contexts, we rightly decry the “nanny state.”

Some argue that allowing civil unions is tantamount to government endorsing a particular lifestyle. That’s not true. Freedom is a civic, not necessarily a personal, virtue. Just because we say “people should be free to live as they wish” doesn’t mean we’re putting a government imprimatur on their choices. People are free to be Harry Potter fans, environmentalists, Harley riders and Methodists. That doesn’t mean government endorses those things.

Remember, there are still plenty of factors that limit human freedom: religious and moral belief, financial limitations, intellectual capacity, obligations to others, physical ability, and so on. But government shouldn’t be one of them.

Then there’s the argument that civil unions are just marriage by another name, and as such they undermine the very institution of marriage. I don’t agree with this. One’s a legal construction, the other a sacrament. There’s a big difference.

The sacrament of marriage existed long before our government busied itself with defining it. In my faith, a couple is married only through the act of being joined together by God. If the government today declared my marriage void because of a legal technicality, it would mean nothing to me. For what God has brought together, no man – or government – can separate. Nor could government compel a church to recognize a legal “marriage” as being sacred.

Government shouldn’t be in the marriage business at all, because it isn’t qualified. In his brilliant book on Christian theology, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis took on the question of whether the British Parliament should codify ecclesiastical rules governing divorce in the laws of the United Kingdom.

Here’s what Lewis had to say:

“Before leaving the question of divorce, I should like to distinguish two things which are very often confused. The Christian conception of marriage is one: the other is the quite different question – how far Christians, if they are voters or Members of Parliament, ought to try to force their views of marriage on the rest of the community by embodying them in the divorce laws.  A great many people seem to think that if you are a Christian yourself you should try to make divorce difficult for everyone. I do not think that. At least I know I should be very angry if the Mahommedans tried to prevent the rest of us from drinking wine. My own view is that the Churches should frankly recognise that the majority of the British people are not Christians and, therefore, cannot be expected to live Christian lives. There ought to be two distinct kinds of marriage: one governed by the State with rules enforced on all citizens, the other governed by the Church with rules enforced by her on her own members. The distinction ought to be quite sharp, so that a man knows which couples are married in a Christian sense and which are not.”

When it came to matters of theology, Lewis was no liberal. He understood that when you mix legal and sacred, you lose the sacred. That’s why, thank goodness, we don’t have statutes governing infant baptism or last rites. The same should go for marriage.

Those who say legal arrangements devised by humans (civil unions) are exactly the same as a divinely ordained sacrament (marriage) betray a weak view of the latter. It would be a sad irony indeed if this kind of equivalency rhetoric is what ends up pushing our society towards privileging the legal definition of marriage over the sacred.

Finally, our state and country face big problems that require the immediate attention of conservative leaders. We elected them to cut spending, reduce debt, shrink the size of government, and ferret out waste, fraud and abuse. It’s time to get to work on that.

Because as a father, I’m much more worried about those things than I am about the gay couple living down the street, minding their own business.