When Legal Recognition MATTERS

One evening not too many weeks ago, Sarah was having trouble breathing. Typically, one puff from the inhaler and all is well. But that night was different. Sarah couldn’t hold coherent conversation, was having trouble lying down, and labored with every breath. Lindsey tried to assess the situation. After watching Sarah’s symptoms develop and worsen over the course of the evening, Lindsey made the call to drive Sarah to the nearby Emergency Room.

It is times like these when legal recognition matters.

As a couple dealing with chronic health conditions, we are no strangers to navigating various healthcare webs. Health can play up just about anywhere or anytime. Because Sarah has severe asthma and other health problems, we tend towards choosing to see a doctor when we deem it necessary. In dealing with healthcare professionals, we have had significantly more positive experiences when seeing a provider who can recognize our relationship than when seeing one who cannot and will not.

We were in the middle of an impromptu day trip somewhere in the State of Virginia. On the side of the road, we saw an old train station that had been turned into a museum. Intrigued, we decided to stop and visit. It was a combined railway station and post office from 1910. In this building, a placard over one door reads, “White” while a placard over the other door reads, “Colored.”

It is in places like this where labels matter.

Now, before we take this post too much farther, let us say directly that we do not think it is appropriate to compare the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s with current movements to expand legal rights of LGBT people as though the two are exactly the same. There are many important points of difference, and the few points of similarity that do exist are not our reason for sharing these two stories in the same post. We began with these stories because they are experiences we have shared as a couple. Being in the two different environments–the emergency room and the train station–evoked various reflections that influence how we see questions of legal recognition for LGBT people.

As members of a sacramental Christian tradition, we have no intention of advocating for our church to recognize our relationship as a sacramental marriage. We have no problem with being known simply as “Lindsey and Sarah,” and we enjoy participating in the life of our parish together. A sacramental marriage in our tradition crowns two people as martyrs to one another, laying down their lives for each other in an act of sacrificial love. A sacramental marriage is not about legal name changes, the ability to file taxes together, qualifying for health insurance, gaining access to medical records, coordinating treatment across diverse providers, combining incomes when trying to qualify for a mortgage, and managing end-of-life care. Those functions get housed in the civil (legal) sphere.

Lindsey is often bemused when thinking about how monasteries secure various legal rights that enable them to care for members of their communities. Could you just imagine the scene of an atheist father and a newly-Buddhist mother barging into a Catholic monastery to demand that they alone have the right to plan the funeral of their son who has recently fallen asleep in the Lord? Chaos and madness would ensue. Could you imagine an Orthodox nun tasked to take a very ill member of the community to the hospital only to drop the patient off at registration and have no access to any information about her during her stay? It does not happen that way. Somehow, some way, laws exist in most places to protect the fidelity of the monastic vows and the relationship of each individual sister or brother to the community. …and if those laws do not exist, many Christians rightly call forth “Persecution!”

Society has a lot of automatic systems that just seem to “kick in.” There is a lot of support when parents are trying to make sure that a new baby is appropriately recognized as a member of their family, when monasteries tonsure new members, and when two individuals get married. Along the way, additional benefits accrue–often, without the recipients of the benefits even being aware. A call to one critical agency can set a Rube-Goldberg-type legal machine into action. It’s unlikely that anyone (except maybe some attorneys and the IRS) actually knows the full process by which a newly married couple formally receives all of the 1,000+ legal rights and responsibilities associated with that status.

Many people will argue that marriage or a similar type of legal recognition for same-sex relationships is unnecessary because a same-sex couple can use alternate contractual structures such as securing a Power of Attorney. Both of us know different LGBT couples who have tried to navigate the complex gamut of legal procedures required to use these alternate contractual structures. Several attorneys and multiple thousands of dollars later, they have a piecemeal collection of documents that they hope will safeguard their relationship when legal recognition matters most.

The problem of securing legal protection to care for and provide for loved ones is not unique to LGBT couples. Oftentimes, singles and heterosexual couples who have not yet married face similar problems. One of Sarah’s friends once shared a story in which he was denied bereavement leave from work when his fiance’s mother reposed. His workplace cited that they could not grant him bereavement leave because he was not yet married and had no familial relationship to the reposed. It did not matter that months later, the reposed would have been his mother-in-law. If this event had occurred when he was married, his workplace would have taken him at his word that he needed leave time for his mother-in-law’s funeral. In America, people who are related through blood, adoption, or marriage have a privilege that people who are related by choice do not. (Common law marriages try to bridge the gap in at least some of these instances when a man and a woman share a house for a number of years.)

When we think about it, we see that many Americans do not have the security of knowing the people they choose to share life with will be legally authorized to be there when their presence matters most. The only exception to this is if the people with whom one chooses to do life happen to be one’s family of origin, one’s (opposite-sex) spouse, or one’s monastic family. Any other relationship is relegated to a second-class status. In a way, it is like those signs that hung over the train station doors. It is discrimination based on one human being’s label for his or her relationship to other human beings: family of origin and family by marriage have access to the full range of rights and privileges, and family of choice often gets stuck with the leftovers. More than a few times, Lindsey has had no choice but to remain silently in waiting rooms with no updates when Sarah has been seriously ill or undergoing a medical procedure. Doctors have actively denied Lindsey the ability to see Sarah in a surgical recovery room and access to any sort of aftercare instructions. Once, when Sarah told a physician, “My partner, Lindsey, is here to take me home afterward,” the physician said, “That doesn’t matter. I asked if you were married and have a spouse here.” That same physician later requested contact information for Sarah’s parents even though Lindsey was less than 15 feet away. Because of various legal mechanisms, lack of a legal title negates any level of relationship that two people have to one another.

Given this reality, we ask: what option does an LGBT couple who do not regard their relationship as a sacramental/religious marriage have for ensuring that they are legally protected? Many Christian denominations have promoted the idea that allowing LGBT people to marry legally will have a detrimental effect on how that particular denomination can articulate an understanding of marriage. Therefore, these denominations assert the importance of limiting the legal definition of marriage to one man and one woman. But for all the concern about protecting the institution of marriage and ensuring that there will be no misunderstanding regarding their doctrines on the religious nature of marriage, there is little to no empathy for the lived experiences of so many LGBT couples when one partner has been denied the basic privilege of caring for the other in times of emergency.

For this reason, we tend to believe that all Christian denominations have a responsibility to define marriage theologically in whatever way they deem appropriate while also working to protect LGBT people from undue discrimination in various social contexts. We do not claim to know the best solution for accomplishing this particular work of justice. But, we find these questions critical, and we are grateful that currently, we live in a place where we have some legal options to ensure that we can care for one another. Not every LGBT couple is so fortunate.

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26 thoughts on “When Legal Recognition MATTERS

  1. This is why I support the proposed changes in the definition of marriage in my denomination (PCUSA). The definition would change from marriage as a union between one woman and one man to the union between two people. Christian marriage is not sacramental in our denomination, but it is holy. It is time to remove these particular legal stumbling blocks and church can help make that happen.

    • Thanks for your comment. We appreciate that different Christian traditions consider a myriad of factors when making these kinds of decisions. In some cases, the reflection within the Christian tradition might show forth a deeper theology of marriage. In other cases, the reflection within the Christian tradition might indicate that Christian tradition believes in the importance of blessing legal unions where the law defines who is eligible for a marital blessing in that tradition.

  2. To me the answer is civil partnership (as it is called in the UK, shortly to change to “Civil marriage”). Churches and religions are free to define marriage as they wish, and it is a seperate matter from civil partnership/marriage so LGBT people (and others) have non-religious options. For me the PACS system in France, although flawed, was a good model (now widely replaced with same sex marriage). Straight and gay couples could choose to sign a PACS agreement (Pacte Civile de Solidarite), also things like two best friends wanting to buy a house together were included. As the way families and relationships work have changed, the law must change to protect citizens (for example, here in the UK a lot of younger people choose to live with friends because it is financially easier, even buying houses with them, and stay in that arrangement indefinitely, even if they have a partner as well)

  3. I lean toward civil partnership as the only state-recognized option for all couples whether same-sex/gender or different-sex/gender. I think it manages two problems at once: it provides an option for those who believe that the state should have no role in defining marriage to opt out of the civil side altogether (legal complexities and all) in favor of a sacramental or religious ceremony only, and it provides a way to ensure that same-sex couples have the legal and civil protections and benefits they need. Then various denominations and religious groups would be free to offer whatever marital ceremonies they deemed suitable to each couple, without the pressure from the state many denominations dread is coming.

    I think such a system has the potential to address your concerns as celibate partners, as well as the concerns of the friend you mentioned — civil partnership could occur immediately upon such a couple becoming engaged, for instance, to recognize the formality of their relationship. That raises some questions in my mind about the method of dissolving such a partnership, which would necessarily be more complex that simply breaking up or even breaking off an engagement. Much to think on.

    Thank you for your thoughts! Blessings.

  4. (Disclaimer, I’m speaking from an American’s perspective here. I know other countries have different legal and social understandings of the matter.) On the one hand, I agree with the civil partnership/union concept: On an abstract level, it’s merely a matter of semantics what one calls a relationship as long as it is being accorded equal legal rights and recognition. On the other hand, no one ever seems to complain much when heterosexual atheists or agnostics get civilly married and call their relationship, well, a marriage. They might reasonably be expected to raise objections if we told them, “Sorry, you aren’t allowed to use that word anymore. You’re civilly partnered now.” It speaks to a double standard in this debate that I don’t see addressed very often: Religious groups had no problem sharing the term “marriage” with the secular community until same-sex couples asked to be included. At which point they decided they’d rather pick up their toys and go home.

  5. Instead of responding to everyone’s comments individually, I (Lindsey) am going to weigh in on the conversation with some general observations after reading people’s comments.

    Ready_to_halt; I think your point about picking up the toys and going home is an apt one. So many times, legal recognition becomes important because social recognition isn’t present. When I was in college and I took my roommate to the campus clinic, the nurse simply asked my roommate if I should be told some follow-up care instructions. The nurse realized that because of my proximity to my roommate, I’d likely be involved in helping my roommate recoup. The only legal structure present was “consent of the patient.”

    Yet, I think that in some places common human decency tends to go out the window when dealing with a perceived LGBT person. Since when does a heterosexual pair have to produce their marriage license in order to continue the act of caring for one another? As an LGBT couple, we’re very aware that a piece of paper might be the only tool we have to try to say, “Hey, wait a minute, we’ve made commitments to be here for one another in just this sort of situation!”

    The breakdown of human decency is present even in the question of bereavement leave should an engaged person want to attend the funeral of his soon-to-be mother-in-law. I have been in communities where the entire community shuts down to attend the funeral of a beloved teacher. Now, might these sort of situations call for a protocol where the person needs to seek permission from one’s supervisor? Sure. I think that there are always going to be exceptions to rules that need to be considered on a case-by-case basis with some tracking that can establish precedent.

    Relative to the questions about civil partnerships; some people have realized that these legal structures afford them access to an appropriate set of rights and responsibilities for their needs. I’d offer an observation that the structures of civil partnerships vary widely across jurisdictions. A civil partnership may be an appropriate structure for some people while being woefully inadequate for other people.

    • Hi Kay, we think the Church has an obligation to present a theological vision for marriage. In our Christian tradition, the theological vision of marriage presents a comparatively narrow scope where a good number of heterosexual unions fall massively short of this theological vision. We respect that other Christian traditions define a different theological vision of marriage. That is their prerogative.

      Additionally, as we said in our post, a theological vision of marriage does not center on streamlining certain legal processes. We gave examples such as legal name changes, the ability to file taxes together, qualifying for health insurance, gaining access to medical records, coordinating treatment across diverse providers, combining incomes when trying to qualify for a mortgage, and managing end-of-life care. All of these processes are housed in the civil (legal) sphere, and the Church actually has very little to say about these processes.

      • People don’t realize the difference between a marriage according to the law and a marriage according to Gods Law. I think it’s important to ask heterosexuals, “Would you still get married in a church if it had no legal implications?” Thanks for your blog.

        • Also, as a nurse, I ask the patient who they want in the room. Sometimes people do NOT want their legal spouse present. I personally do not care what type of certificate or license or contract you’ve agreed to, if you can tell me who you do or do not want information given to, that’s what we go by. Unless you are unable to communicate, then I need to see a legal document.

  6. What exactly are you arguing here? I just don’t see the argument. This is the poorest argument for gay marriage I’ve ever seen. All you two need is a healthcare proxy and your whole problem would be solved. That doesn’t mean you have to marry the gays.

    • Hi Karl, your comment had been picked up by our spam filter. Sorry about the delay in approving your comment. As we’ve already discussed below, we were not trying to make an argument for gay marriage. We wanted to share our own experiences in trying to navigate different situations.

  7. I have to say I’m disappointed in this. It’s not a good argument for gay marriage. There are much better arguments. I’m curious to know why you want gay marriage anyway if you’re celibate.

    • Hi Alex. This post was not intended to be an argument for gay marriage. It was meant as a reflection on our own experiences as a couple that have led us to believe in the importance of some form of legal recognition for one’s family of choice. We used the medical example because that area has been the most challenging for us as a couple, especially if one of us becomes ill while we are traveling in a place that does not recognize us as in any way related to one another. We also wanted to point out how fortunate we are to live in a place where we have several options for legal recognition because we are troubled by the fact that many other LGBT couples–including friends of ours–do not have this luxury.

  8. I agree that loving, committed relationships need to have ways to share many of the benefits given to married couples, but I disagree with redefining marriage to make this happen. The unique potential ability of heterosexual couples to produce children results in responsibilities that differ from other relationships.
    I have, however, known two women who bought a house together and shared a life together after the older of the women was widowed ( she was childless).Their relationship was one of genuine, mutual care for each other, with the younger woman caring for the older until the older woman died. I don’t think marriage would in any sense be an appropriate way to describe their relationship, but it was a domestic partnership. It would make sense for the younger woman to have visitation rights at the hospital, to inherit the property of the older woman, etc.
    In summary, I think that the efforts toward “gay marriage” are too limiting, because there are many other committed, loving relationships just as deserving of the benefits that gay couples seek. I would favor domestic partnerships for many different types of relationships, such as the one I described. On the other hand, the reason society has any interest in marriage at all is that society benefits, as studies have shown that children raised by their biological mother and father in a loving, stable environment do better in school, are less likely to do drugs, are less likely to be involved in gangs, are less likely to experience a teen pregnancy, etc. Recognizing the unique responsibilities entailed in a heterosexual sexual relationship seems to be an aspect that is often overlooked when discussing marriage in society today. I think redefining marriage weakens its meaning and purpose at a time when it needs to be strengthened.

    • Hi, Mo. Lots of great points here. Our intention in this post was not to make an argument for gay marriage. We agree with you that “there are many other committed, loving relationships just as deserving of the benefits that gay couples seek.” Within the next few weeks, we’re hoping to write a post on why we find it regrettable that states recognizing gay marriage are starting to phase out civil unions. Stay tuned!

  9. Do you think you get a stronger response because you are two adults who appear to be of the same sex (I read your post on language and wasn’t sure whether it was appropriate to say two women or not)? The reason I ask is while I’ve only been to an ER/urgent care center twice with another person who was not my parents, both of the times it has been men and they’ve never been asked to leave (including the second time, when the other person and I were not in a romantic relationship and so I simply called him my friend when referring to him to the doctors).

    • Hi Claire Rebecca! Thanks for checking out our post on language. We appreciate it. We think that part of the problem is that Lindsey is frequently read as LGBT by others even before we’ve said anything. Biting remarks frequently follow the assumptions.

  10. I wonder if there should be different levels of legal personal integration, starting with Power of Attorney (somewhat removed) and ending with Domestic Partnership (more intimate, and granting most of the legal rights attributed to marriage (tax, health, inheritance, etc). If people could enter into these integrations without prejudice, whether or not their partnership was marital or even romantic, it might help to solidify the safety that their social network is supposed to afford.

    • That’s true. We’re still working out what kinds of legal protections are best for our own relationship even after having written this post months ago. As we’ve continued to think about this topic, we have kept coming back to the broader problem of how often our society allows legal technicalities to prevail over common sense. It’s sad that any unmarried person, regardless of sexual orientation, has to jump through so many hoops to make sure that the loved ones he or she has chosen for involvement in major decisions actually get to be involved. It would be nice if there were clearer pathways for getting to legal personal integration at any level.

  11. Again, you two are amazing. I thought I was one of the only people who’s thought about things like this. I definitely agree that a Biblical, theological marriage is between a man and a woman, but I think the points that you bring up from a legal standpoint are so important and often neglected.
    In my personal opinion, I would see no problem with two people in a celibate relationship/partnership getting legally married just to have those legal benefits. But I think that some others would definitely disagree.
    Thank you guys again for taking the time to write about all these different things that you guys have experienced and gone through. It means a lot.

    • Legal concerns have definitely been tricky to navigate. For the most part, we consider ourselves very fortunate.

  12. Have you looked into the possibility of one of you legally adopting the other? I’ve heard of people going that route but don’t know many details. Sounds kind of crazy but the system we’re dealing with is kind of crazy . . .

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