Though the Democratic National Convention publicly announced its support for same-sex marriage last week, President Barack Obama failed to mention the issue in his acceptance speech. So did Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney during his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention the week before, despite publically endorsing the sanctity of marriage.
Yet to focus on this would be missing the point. Civil unions — or legally recognized partnerships that give same-sex couples the same rights as opposite-sex couples — should be the central focus of the upcoming election, rather than gay marriage.
The history of the institution of marriage is steeped in religious doctrine. Each religion follows its own set of beliefs about marriage, beliefs that should be protected and maintained. Therefore, marriage should stay a religious issue.
The United States, however, believes in the strict separation of church and state. Though this division doesn’t always work well in practice, the government should exercise restraint and allow individual religious institutions to determine whether they will recognize same-sex marriage.
The solution to this dilemma is for the nation and the 2012 presidential candidates to turn to defining and supporting civil unions. Civil unions should be granted to all couples, whether heterosexual or homosexual.
All politicians, regardless of where they stand on gay marriage, should look to create clear legislation on civil unions, which the federal government currently does not recognize. Under the Defense of Marriage Act, the federal law that defines marriage as the legal union of one man and one woman, states are not required to recognize civil unions, either.
This leads to an ambiguous situation where same-sex partnership is concerned. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are only five states that recognize civil unions, but seven more (including California) grant some or most spousal rights to same-sex couples.
Rather than adding to the confusion by implementing civil union laws state by state, the issue must be decided at a federal level so all partnerships, whether same- or opposite-sex, are legally and symbolically recognized.
In many states, such as Texas and Virginia, when a same-sex couple adopts a child, only one partner can be legally considered the step-parent. In the event of a medical emergency involving the adopted child, if the designated step-parent is not present, the other partner does not have the right to consent to medical treatment for the child.
Similarly disastrous situations have cropped up nationwide, and the next president must put an end to them. Such restrictions put children in unnecessary danger and impinge on the basic rights of a family. Under a civil union, same-sex partners would both legally be considered step-parents, who can be there for their child in times of emergency and — more importantly — symbolically, as parents.
Elevating civil unions to a federal level would also have a key impact on equality in employee benefits. As of now, some companies providing medical insurance and other services to employees and their families can deny these services to same-sex families. But under civil unions, companies would be restricted from doing so.
Civil unions are less polarizing than gay marriage and are beneficial for all Americans. They allow those who define marriage as being strictly between a man and a woman to feel that the sanctity of marriage is preserved. At the same time, civil unions extend the rights to same-sex couples that they are currently denied.
In order to lead a country that was built upon equality and rights for all, both presidential candidates must include civil unions in their campaigns to defend the rights of all Americans who support them.
David Lowenstein is a junior majoring in international relations global business. Point/Counterpoint runs Fridays.