Advocates of same-sex civil marriage often emphasize the "civil," as a way to underline the fact that churches with objections to gay marriage have nothing to fear from what Joni Mitchell called "a piece of paper from the city hall." In one sense, that’s obviously true: Civil same-sex marriage doesn’t threaten a religion's 1st Amendment right to determine eligibility for one of its sacraments. (Nor, despite the paranoid ravings of some fundamentalists, will laws against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation lead to hate-speech charges against homophobic preachers.)
And yet, when it comes to same-sex marriage, the wall of separation between church and state is a porous one. By that I mean that the most eloquent argument for civil same-sex marriage -- public recognition of the ennobling nature of homosexual love -- also resonates in the debate over religious recognition of same-sex relationships.
Without using the term "marriage," the Episcopal Church has now authorized a rite called "Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant." Members of same-sex couples would declare that they are "bound to one another in a holy covenant, as long as they both shall live," and they may exchange rings.
It would be naive to think that this evolution in the theology of same-sex relationhships was unaffected by the social forces that resulted in the approval in some states of same-sex civil marriage. By the same token, the decision of the Episcopal Church a generation ago to ordain women as priests reflected feminist trends in the larger society.