Not long after I wrote In Holy Matrimony, my previous opinion piece on gay marriage, a new idea started developing in my mind. That idea grew, developed, and has since become an integral piece of my opinion on this controversial issue. I am interested to see what all of you—liberals and conservatives—think of it.

But first, in the interest of full disclosure, let me reiterate my somewhat complex opinions on homosexuality.

From a religious perspective, I believe homosexuality is a sin (see 1 Corinthians 6:9-11). That said, I don’t believe that people should be mistreated or hated simply because they sin. On the contrary, sinners are supposed to be welcomed into Christianity with open arms. A person’s salvation is between them and God, and I’m not going to make judgments in his place (apparently that’s Jerry Falwell’s job). I do, however, have reservations about practicing homosexuals becoming ordained ministers.

From a sociopolitical perspective, I think that homosexuality should be a non-issue. Homosexual sex—like any other form of consensual sex—should not be criminalized (see Sex Laws and Inconsistent Conservatives). Homosexuals should have equal rights in hiring, college admissions, and so on—including service in the military, but I’ll save that for a later column. I have worked with, schooled with, and befriended people who live a homosexual lifestyle and I do not treat them any differently than I treat anybody else. I absolutely abhor anti-gay violence.

In fact, I support almost everything encompassed in the term ‘gay rights,’ but merely disagree with the argument that homosexuality is somehow automatically acceptable and compatible with Christianity just because it is (arguably) naturally occurring. Lots of things are naturally occurring—like bipolar disorder, for example—and that does not make them inherently good.

When it comes to gay marriage, things get a little confused. First off, the term is something of an oxymoron because marriage is—by definition—the union of a man and woman. Further, marriage is an odd conglomeration of a civil and religious union. Limiting gay marriage (as a civil institution) offends my sociopolitical perspective on homosexuality. Allowing it (as a sacred institution) would offend my religious perspective.

In my In Holy Matrimony column, I ultimately came to the following conclusions:

“Aside being unnecessary when civil unions are allowed, allowing homosexuals to marry changes the very meaning of the word ‘marriage . . . .’ People have said that marriage, as a civil institution, cannot be limited to heterosexual male-female couples. But they have forgotten that marriage is first-and-foremost a sacred institution. It is a sacred institution that has changed too much already, and should not be changed any more.”

But, I must admit that I’m looking at things a bit differently now.

My objections to gay marriage are mainly religious in nature, but I recognize that marriage is also a civil institution encompassing everything from hospital visitation to taxes to inheritance. Earlier, I sided with the religious beliefs somewhat reluctantly because I believed that the two perspectives were mutually exclusive.

But those thorny civil vs. religious issues can all be avoided if we do something that looks like common sense when I think about it now: Completely eliminate marriage as a civil institution.

Bear with me.

The civil/religious dichotomy of marriage is not set in stone, nor is it necessarily logical. Perhaps ‘marriage’ should be the purview of the churches, and ‘civil unions’ should be the purview of government.

When I say ‘civil unions,’ I’m not using a euphemism for ‘gay marriage’ as many do today. What I mean is that the civil piece of marriage would be available as a separate, unlimited institution. Marriage itself would become a religious status or ceremony analogous to a bar mitzvah or baptism.

And when I say that civil unions would be unlimited, I mean it. Any adults could enter into these unions with one another and give each other all the rights associated with civil marriage today—hospital visitation, tax status, child guardianship, inheritance, and whatever else. It wouldn’t be limited to two either; sixteen people could consensually enter into a civil union (although, for reasons of practicality, I wouldn’t recommend it). In other words, people should be allowed to fully control how their civil unions are arranged and the government should not argue with their decisions. These unions—as with civil marriage today—could be dissolved if the parties involved change their minds.

Marriage, on the other hand, would become exclusively a religious institution. Each religious group would be free to set its own rules about what they believe is a marriage in the eyes of God. The Catholic Church, for example, is unlikely to recognize gay marriage—and they won’t have to! Other religious groups may come to different conclusions, and they would all be free to marry or not marry homosexual couples in accordance with their beliefs. They would have to choose what marriages they recognize, whether to allow divorce, and so on without the heavy-handed guidance of the government. They would all have to figure it out for themselves.

Some people would jump on the opportunity to stretch the definitions of marriage. Certain splinter Mormon sects which continue practicing polygamy would no longer have to hide it from the law, and the mainstream LDS Church would have the right to reintroduce the practice if they want. Some would enter into communal marriages. Some would surely find even more inventive ways to utilize the new laws.

And nothing would stop two homosexual people from entering into a civil union and throwing their own marriage ceremony (or having one in a church that permits gay marriage) and referring to themselves as a married couple.

But most people wouldn’t do these things. For most of the country, ‘marriage’ as we know it today would change very little. Most people would do what Melissa and I would do if civil and religious marriage were split—enter into the civil union for the associated rights and benefits, and enter into the religious marriage before God, both with the one person with whom we want to spend the rest of our lives.

Those who insist that the ability to redefine marriage is somehow a civil right would no longer have anything to complain about; gay marriage would effectively become a reality. But nobody would be required to accept those unions if they were antithetical to their personal religious and ethical beliefs.

Most importantly, religious organizations and the government would finally have to do what they’re supposed to: churches would have to take a stand on what they believe is acceptable in the eyes of God, and the government would have to stop.