But what was once a tolerable idiosyncrasy is fast becoming a divisive anachronism. As law and religion increasingly come into conflict over issues like same-sex marriage, gender identity, and sexual mores more generally, it is more important than ever to clarify that civil status and religious status are distinct. And, as mainstream conservative religious groups are increasingly alienated from secular society, they have a newfound interest in separating religion from the state in order to prevent confusion between the two or, worse, dilution and corruption of their religion.
The legislature should now adopt a new approach. Religious leaders must be permitted to perform pretty much whatever religious ceremonies they want between consenting adults, and to decline to perform any religious ceremony that offends their religious beliefs. None of these relationships would have the legal status of marriage, but if they are important to a person's religious identity, beliefs, or status, the law should not stand in the way.
Thus, a religious leader who believes that same-sex marriage is sinful will never have a crisis of conscience pitting religious beliefs against state law. He could simply refuse. Likewise, a religious group that has a more expansive view could follow its own religious beliefs and consecrate the relationships it considers sacred. These could include recognition of a whole range of relationships, whether heterosexual, same-sex, polyamorous, or anything else. Religious groups can call these relationships marriages, or something else altogether. The law will have no interest in policing these relationships because they are strictly religious, rather than civil, in nature.
On the other hand, civil marriage would be best reframed as a bundle of contracts between two private individuals and the state, rather than anything sacred. A couple that desires the legal rights and responsibilities of civil marriage would go through a purely legal process—just as anyone would have to go through a legal process to obtain a driver's license, receive social security, purchase property or pay taxes. The civil marriage process might require a ceremony conducted by a justice of the peace, some paperwork at town hall, or even just an internet application. But a religious ceremony would be neither necessary nor sufficient. Indeed, it would be altogether irrelvant.
Importantly, only some relationships—those between two consenting, unrelated, and unmarried adults—will qualify for civil marriage, as the Supreme Court has mandated, because they serve its core functions: promoting stability, establishing legal bonds that clarify duties and rights, and providing a committed family unit conducive to the rearing of children. But anyone who meets these legal criteria can legally marry, and the process for doing so must be free of discrimination.
Instead of wasting its time in yet another session engaging in a zero-sum war over this issue, the Georgia Legislature should lead the nation by adopting this new approach to marriage that protects everyone as equal citizens, regardless of their faith, while simultaneously affirming the right of religious believers to be as free from state entanglement as possible.