Hell has frozen over.

Today my hometown, Belfast, Northern Ireland, the last major stronghold of fundamentalist evangelicals in the United Kingdom, became the stage for the first legal civil unions of homosexual couples in the UK. What a wonderful juxtaposition between liberal and conservative thought. And what a great discussion.

To understand these groundbreaking new laws, you must understand the law as it already pertains to marriage. Legal marriage contains certain provisions for a husband or wife in the event that one partner predeceases the other, such as inheritance and property rights. It also permits the citizen of another country to join their British spouse in the UK, granting them lawful permanent residence. The wisdom of statist government also provides special pension and tax benefits for married couples and not to others.

The new civil union laws simply extend those same rights and benefits to homosexual couples, without calling it ‘marriage’. And it is a piece of lawmaking that extends a very clear-headed, rational resolution, which is a step toward equality and fairness (but not the fulfilment thereof).

Fundamentalist evangelicals are furious about this. According to the Belfast Telegraph, they protested in front of the City Hall in Belfast with a truck “…carrying a large billboard picturing a heterosexual married couple approved with a huge green [checkmark], alongside a gay couple in wedding dress with a dismissive red ‘X’.” The anti-homosexual group The Christian Reform Foundation gathered its members to harass homosexual couples on their way into the City Hall, and Ian Paisley’s Free Presbyterian Church were planning to preach about the sanctity of marriage throughout the day.

Ironically, the new law doesn’t even ADDRESS the issue of marriage! And this is where I think conservatives are missing the point. The law poses no threat to the ‘sanctity’ of marriage, and doesn’t even need to mention marriage. The law simply provides a means whereby a form of personal relationship can be easily recognised in law for the purposes of sharing rights and gaining benefits.

The conservatives’ real problem here is the entire IDEA of homosexuality. So they believe that they should oppose it in principle, anywhere they see it. The problem with this is not that they wish to oppose homosexuality on moral grounds, the problem is that they are attempting to oppose it on LEGAL grounds, in an arena which would not only convey to homosexuals that their activity is wrong, or immoral, but would instead take coercive action against them (such as prohibiting them from receiving tax benefits, prohibiting their partners from entering the country, or prohibiting them from sharing a state pension plan).

Jonathan Larner, spokesman for The Christian Reform Foundation, told the Belfast Telegraph, “I believe that civil partnerships are a sinful parody of the marriage bond and it undermines that bond by trying to make a moral equivalent with a sinful lifestyle.” So he opposes homosexuality in principal, calling it sinful. That is his right. But it doesn’t follow that Larner should be able to stop, by force, homosexual individuals from sharing the benefits that are permitted to married couples.

In a civilised, free society, the same liberty granted to Larner to moan about gay people also allows gay people to make contractual agreements with their partners entitling them to share their lives together. That’s not a statement about morality – it makes no endorsement OR condemnation of homosexuality – it is a statement about freedom, affecting only the LEGAL arena. Personal opinions, whether they derive from religious belief, ethical theory, moral judgement or anything else, are IRRELEVANT to this debate.

The definition of marriage has already evolved to some extent. Traditionally a religious sacrament, holy matrimony, marriage now is generally understood to mean any heterosexual union which involves an exchange of rings, a dress, and a legal document. It’s more loosely defined than conservatives will admit. Civil ceremonies are as common as religious ceremonies. In a place not far from here, Elvis is a big part of the proceedings. And a general custom is still not enough to convince me that what we understand marriage to be is meaningful on anything except each individual level.

But John, you’re a libertarian. Surely you have some radical, better way to get the whole thing done? Ah, I’m glad you asked.

Ideally, government would not be in the role of defining who and what and how any two (or more) individuals would interact with each other from a legal perspective. In a libertarian society, government would simply acknowledge contractual agreements between any individuals. Every marriage would be a civil union. There would not be a preconceived idea in government of what constitutes such a union; those decisions would be up to the couple themselves (rather in the way prenuptial agreements are drafted today). In this way, individuals would come together in a union which is legally defined by THEM alone, and government would simply honour those contracts as they do with anything else.

Don’t like the inheritance right that is automatically afforded to your spouse when you die? Leave it out. You want to make concrete obligations to your spouse that go far beyond the provisions of today’s concept of marriage? Write it up. And in so doing, each human contract, heterosexual, homosexual, or otherwise, is afforded the same weight in law, whether people opt to go above and beyond and make it a religious ‘marriage’ or not. The law should not be concerned with religious sacraments, neither should it be concerned with redefining such sacraments. Government’s only valid, moral purpose is simple:

To protect individual rights.

John Wright