Monday, November 26, 2007

Making Marriage a Private Affair

From the NY Times:

WHY do people — gay or straight — need the state’s permission to marry? For most of Western history, they didn’t, because marriage was a private contract between two families. The parents’ agreement to the match, not the approval of church or state, was what confirmed its validity.

For 16 centuries, Christianity also defined the validity of a marriage on the basis of a couple’s wishes. If two people claimed they had exchanged marital vows — even out alone by the haystack — the Catholic Church accepted that they were validly married.
Not until the 16th century did European states begin to require that marriages be performed under legal auspices. In part, this was an attempt to prevent unions between young adults whose parents opposed their match.

The American colonies officially required marriages to be registered, but until the mid-19th century, state supreme courts routinely ruled that public cohabitation was sufficient evidence of a valid marriage. By the later part of that century, however, the United States began to nullify common-law marriages and exert more control over who was allowed to marry.
Possession of a marriage license is no longer the chief determinant of which obligations a couple must keep, either to their children or to each other. But it still determines which obligations a couple can keep — who gets hospital visitation rights, family leave, health care and survivor’s benefits. This may serve the purpose of some moralists. But it doesn’t serve the public interest of helping individuals meet their care-giving commitments.

Perhaps it’s time to revert to a much older marital tradition. Let churches decide which marriages they deem “licit.” But let couples — gay or straight — decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.

This article raises a point I made before in regards to the proposed constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. Who marries who isn't the government's business. That until the latter half of last century it wasn't even the state's business. Giving the number of unwed mothers in the US I'd argue that the standards for what constitutes a valid marriage needs to be greatly relaxed if only to ensure that children produced in less formal relationships are provided the financial support and increased stability that they deserve. As for wiping out legal marriage altogether I'm not entirely convinced its the best course. Based on my previous argument I'd prefer to see the standard relaxed to "provable legal marriage" which could be established after the fact if need be. The ironic thing is that the party that has traditionally supported reduced government meddling in people's private lives would now be the first to oppose such changes on the grounds of religion/family values. As though somehow our great grandparents were less moral than we are today. Gotta love the GOP base's logic.