A blog by Barry Edelson

Government Should Get Out
Of the Marriage Business

The nastiness that greeted the California supreme court's lifting of a ban against homosexual marriage last week was as predictable as it was sad. There are many horrors and injustices in the world which are worthy of outrage and action, but the determination of two people who are in love and want to get married isn't one of them. Seeing people define their lives by trying to deny happiness to others is one of the sorriest spectacles in public life today.

It has always been an utter mystery to me why any heterosexual would be bothered by homosexuality. The vehemence and even violence which with some people oppose homosexuality seems out of all proportion to the alleged threat to civilization that it is supposed to represent. It is inconceivable how someone else's sexual or romantic relationship could make any difference to me, let alone cause me harm.

Though the public and political debate about homosexuality has been focused over the last few years mainly on the issue of gay marriage, neither proponents nor opponents of the practice seem realize that they are undermining their own best arguments by framing the issue in purely legal terms. If marriage is a holy bond sanctified by God since time immemorial, as the family-rights crowd would have us believe, then its protection under the law is both superfluous and meaningless. On the other hand, if marriage is a union of two souls who have decided that they can't live without each other, as the gay-rights advocates would insist, then legally sanctioned gay marriage is neither necessary nor relevant. As Joni Mitchell once sang, "We don't need no piece of paper from the city hall keeping us tied and true."

For better or worse (pun intended), marriage is a public institution, and one that is increasingly ill-suited to the divergent roles that it is asked to play in contemporary society. It is long past time to wonder whether government ought to get out of the marriage business entirely.

There are many who are more learned than I about the myriad psychological, social, anthropological, economic, sexual, procreative, genealogical and biblical explanations for marriage. Suffice it to say that any institution that has survived for thousands of years carries an extraordinary amount of cultural baggage that cannot be captured in slogans and sound bites. It is also perfectly clear that many of the frequently cited reasons why people find marriage to be a valuable and even venerable institution have no basis other than in the peculiar way in which societies evolve over time.

Civil unions for everyone
would be equal, fair and
thankfully humdrum.

The only absolutely true thing we can say about why people tend to pair off is that this is a fundamental characteristic of the human species. All of the other supposedly "pure" reasons given for marriage are self-evidently changeable. In different societies and at different times marriage has been variously practiced as an economic and political union of families or clans, an acquisition of property, a manifestation of God's plan for humankind, an imperative for the survival of one's tribal group, a protection against sexual promiscuity, a peace offering between nations, and, only lately, a consummation of romantic love.

Any suggestion that legally permitted marriage between homosexuals will permanently change the institution is both true and beside the point. The examples cited above should make it plain that the institution has already undergone innumerable permutations. Some of the arguments against gay marriage are stunning in their inanity. A favorite of mine is that marriage between two men or two women will open the way to all manner of deviant coupling: what will stop a man from marrying his brother, or a woman from marrying her cat? Well, the answer ought to be obvious to any rational person. It will be stopped for the same reason that thousands of years of heterosexual marriage has not led any society to allow a man to marry his daughter or a mother to marry her son. Moral codes may not be monolithic or universal, but neither are they entirely stupid.

But, strangely enough, the silliest arguments raise a fundamental question: Why do governments give out marriage licenses in the first place? Why is it the business of government how people choose to organize their domestic lives? For one reason only: because there are legal ramifications. In his recent novel, "Diary of a Bad Year, " J. M. Coetzee writes, "Whether the citizen lives or dies is not a concern of the state. What matters to the state and its records is whether the citizen is alive or dead." Governments of all kinds must keep an accounting, and the private lives of citizens cannot help but collide with the powers that be on all manner of practical issues, including residency, property, child custody, health care, insurance, inheritance—the list is endless. The marriage of citizens to one another ought to matter to government only insofar as it affects their ability to live peaceably in society and to pay taxes.

So here's a modest proposal: No more marriage licenses. Instead of trying to extend the rights of "marriage" to homosexuals, the government should allow only civil unions for all couples. If you want to have the sanction of marriage in a church, that should be your right, but that has nothing to do with the legal rights of civil unions recognized by the state. This solution would render all unions equal before the law, and make the pathetic squabble over gay marriage passé.

If this leads to some odd unions, so be it. Why shouldn't two elderly sisters, for example, be allowed to enter into a civil union for the purpose of protecting their property rights or guaranteeing health care coverage one for the other? Obviously, their union would be neither romantic nor sexual nor holy, but neither are a lot of the so-called marriages that any of us could name.

May 17, 2008

Go to top of pageReturn to home page

Send an e-mail

All writings on this site are copyrighted by Barry Edelson. Reprinting by permission only.