President Obama’s “evolution” on the gay marriage issue and presidential contender Mitt Romney’s seemingly inconsistent position reveal little policy conflict when you dissect the controversial subject.

To see gay marriage and equal rights for same-sex couples as different issues is possible. Just as it is to be against gay marriage and at the same time support equal rights for gays and lesbians.

That inner conflict appears to have been at the core of the president’s slow turnaround on the issue. Obama declared his unequivocal support for gay marriage on Wednesday, days after the statement was in effect forced by Vice President Joe Biden’s out-of-turn comments on the issue.

“I have hesitated on gay marriage in part because I thought that civil unions would be sufficient,” Obama said in a television interview. “I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people the word ‘marriage’ was something that evokes very powerful traditions, religious beliefs and so forth.”

The president hit the nail on the head. And this probably explains Romney’s continued wavering on the issue. While Romney has said he believes marriage is defined as a union between a man and a woman, he also has said he supports equal rights for gays and lesbians and same-sex partners.

The hang-up for this nation on this issue has been the continued use of the term “marriage.” While “marriage” is a term shared by government that recognizes the secular implications of such unions, for many Americans “marriage” traditionally means man and woman standing at an altar in a church. It isn’t about tax or health-care or other benefits. It is about how “marriage” as an institution of the church is defined.

For this country and in all the states that have outlawed or made unconstitutional gay “marriage” — including Kansas — we would have been far better off to have focused on alternative language, such as “civil union,” something with which more Americans seem comfortable.

That would leave “marriage” to the churches to decide, just as church denominations over the decades have grappled with the idea of gay clergy and, even before that, female clergy. And it would keep the state out of the province of religion, where it doesn’t belong.

The president isn’t suddenly right on this issue and Romney wrong, or vice versa. Gay “marriage” as a religious institution should remain a church and personal dilemma, but our government, in the spirit of its history of civil rights, needs to recognize equal rights for same-sex couples, united by whatever terminology is used.

— The Hutchinson News