Marriage Is Not the Government’s Business

President Obama’s recent endorsement of same-sex marriage
has gotten people talking. I am late to the party, so maybe I can toss in a question that few people are asking.

Why should anyone need the government’s permission to marry?

The whole thing smacks of feudal times, when serfs needed their lord’s approval to marry. Today, we have freedom. Shouldn’t we be free to make a basic commitment to each other without the government’s say-so? We don’t need the government’s permission to commit ourselves to a particular god; why should it decide which interpersonal commitments are up to snuff?

Let’s get government out of the marriage business.

Wherever government now relies on marriage to determine something, let it use a civil contract. And I’m not talking about civil unions. What I have in mind is much more fine-grained. There could be contracts to establish a household for tax purposes, inheritance contracts, living will contracts, contracts to raise adopted children together, and so on. In each case, the restrictions on who could execute the contracts would be based on the relevant factors for that type of contract, not on the religiously charged concept of marriage.

If you talk with those on the Religious Right, who style themselves as the most ardent defenders of marriage, it’s clear that for them marriage is a religious institution, and their faith makes it especially hard for them to accept the idea of same-sex marriage. But can we not see that even in the context of faith, marriage means different things to different people?

Our country is supposed to allow everyone to practice their faith (or lack of faith). How do we have freedom of religion when we prohibit Muslims from following their custom of polygamy? And have we forgotten that the founders of the Judeo-Christian tradition were polygamous as well? (Yes, Abraham, Moses and many of the other patriarchs had multiple wives.) Finally, does anyone else see irony in the fact that the Republican platform of 2012 will almost certainly include a “one-man-one-woman” plank, and standing squarely on that plank will be … a Mormon?

Did you know that the Bible nowhere defines what it takes to be married? Certainly heterosexuality is assumed, but it’s remarkable how little the Bible actually says about the mechanics of getting married. There is no particular ceremony to follow, and no particular vow to take. And it isn’t until the New Testament that monogamy is unambiguously held up as the ideal. More to the point of this post, no government is invested with the authority to “declare you husband and wife.”

How have we Americans, of all people, ended up with a government that arrogates the right to define marriage not only according to one particular religion’s definition of it, but a late-arriving definition at that?

The first amendment  to our constitution expressly tells government to stay out of the religion business, but we have taken a long time to realize the full implications of that wisely drawn boundary.

  • The first prayer of the Continental Congress (admittedly predating the First Amendment) closes with, “All this we ask in the name and through the merits of Jesus Christ, Thy Son and our Savior.” Recent prayers  are generally less sectarian.
  • The history of blasphemy laws  in the United States may surprise you. As late as 1977, Pennsylvania used its law to prosecute a man who named his business I Choose Hell Productions, LLC. My own state’s general statues still threaten jail time for those who “reproach Jesus Christ.” Yet, one by one, we are realizing that these laws are unconstitutional.
  • It wasn’t until the 1960’s that many people thought twice about things like prayer and devotional Bible reading in schools. Now most Bible advocates realize that a time of silent reflection is probably the most that our constitution will allow.

We have gradually realized that the government does not belong in the prayer business, nor should it police blasphemy. Isn’t it time to realize that it should get out of the marriage business, too?

Let’s go back to the traditional practice of marriages that are covenants between free people – people chosen by each other, not by the government.

Those who want religion to be part of their marriage can enroll a religious leader to conduct a ceremony; those who don’t can pledge their commitment in front of friends or all by themselves. Most marriages will still be between one man and one woman, but a minority will not.

If it’s important for some groups of people to maintain a distinction between their brand of marriage and others, they could copyright a design for special rings.

Wait. That would be kind of like where we are today. Well, I’ve gotta go. One of my kids is asking me to read The Sneetches.

6 responses to “Marriage Is Not the Government’s Business

  1. Sex between consenting adults is a private matter and should stay that way. My concern with gay marriage is the additional fiscal burden it could put on the budgets of social services.
    It seems that the age of U.S. prosperity is over. Competition, around the world, is catching up (or surpassing) us. With the current world financial crisis, it’s a bad time for legislation that will diminish tax revenues (via exemptions and credits for newly recognized gay marriages) and/or increase expenditures for social services such as: spousal support for retirement and survivor benefits; estate tax and trust benefits; veteran and military spousal benefits; federal government employment benefits conferred to married personnel; and immigration benefits conferred to married immigrants. Now is the time to trim waste and fortify programs for the needy (they’re going to need it) . . . it is NOT the time to grant benefits for those who are NOT needy (but rather, merely gay).
    I don’t know how much of a fiscal burden this amounts to — it could be a lot but maybe not. I would like to see a federal study of the cost we would shoulder by legalizing gay marriage. If our country continues its slide from wealth and prominence, we’ll be less able to support non-vital social programs and benefits. I want to know the full impact of gay marriage before I decide how much to support it. As of now, I’m leaning toward individual states deciding for themselves and keeping the federal government out of it.

  2. P.S.
    Sorry to disagree with a major portion of your post . . . but marriage is not a religious issue.

    • I agree. In my post, I only said that “marriage is a religious institution” “for those who style themselves as the most ardent defenders of marriage.” I was referring to the Religious Right. Certainly there are secularists like you and me who value marriage apart from any religious consideration.

  3. I thought the institution of marriage, or whatever you want to call it, as sanctioned by the government was strictly for legal purposes such as those proposed by how your described civil contract? At this current stage in the game, that contract is only afforded to the union of opposite genders. Do you really think that if the government changes the name of the contract that we will somehow get around or avoid that restriction?

    • >> Do you really think that if the government changes the name of the contract that we will somehow get around or avoid that restriction?

      Good question! If the contract is granted on the same conditions as marriage licenses are today, and confers the same benefits, then maybe people will think it’s just a ruse to slip same-sex marriage past us. As you point out, the citizenry might not allow the government to get around the opposite-gender restriction so easily. But having said that, there does seem to be more support for civil unions of homosexuals than for marriages, even though from the government’s point of view they are equivalent. The word “marriage” apparently does carry special meaning for many.

      In any case, simply changing the name of the contract (e.g., to “civil unions”) is not what I’m suggesting. In my fifth paragraph, I suggested that there be a set of contracts that are more fine-grained than civil unions. Each contract would have its own requirements and benefits. It would take several contracts to gain the same legal results that marriage affords today. Maybe by dividing the issue into smaller pieces, the debate would become more manageable. A fine-grained approach would certainly be more sensible. For example, if two people are economically intertwined, why shouldn’t they be able establish a common household for tax purposes, even if they are not lovers, let alone married?

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