The March 2 Free for All letter “ A long-winded non-answer on ‘pro-gay’  ” made the claim: “The institution of marriage based on heterosexual relationships exists naturally outside of government; marriages based on homosexual relationships can be created only by the government.” This statement is absurd. Legal marriage — one that gives spouses and their children certain legal protections and rights — can only be created by the government. Other kinds of marriage already exist for homosexuals outside the realm of government. 

“Marriage” exists in three dimensions: the personal commitment of a couple to each other and to their children; a religious commitment, in which a couple makes vows before God and according to the rules of their religion; and a legal commitment, in which the couple agrees to be bound in the eyes of the state in exchange for certain legal protections and rights. The fact that couples have traditionally made both a religious commitment and a legal commitment at the same time leads to confusion, but these three types of marriage are separate and distinct.

For instance, civil ceremonies provide marriage in the eyes of the law without religious validation of the marriage. A couple who hold a religious ceremony without fulfilling the state requirements for a marriage license are not legally married.

What gay men and lesbians are fighting for in court and in the legislatures is legal marriage — recognition by the state of a valid marriage and bestowal of the accompanying rights and responsibilities. Perhaps if we started separating the marriage debate into these different dimensions, we could come to a better conclusion.

Linda Shields, Columbia