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Taking Marriage Private

2010 January 15

Below is an article that was featured in the New York Times back in 2007. Many may find it controversial, but I think it has an interesting take on the marriage issue. i am NOT trying to promote gay marriage. I am posting this article because it explains how/why government got involved in marriage in the first place. I think we should all learn how government gets involved in personal issues. Over the past year we have seen an intense growth in government (much to our dismay) and I believe it is always a good idea to review and discuss how government involvement effects our lives. We as Republicans need to have a consensus as to what the purpose of government is. The only way to do that is to look over all areas of government and have some discussion. Read it and let us know what you think!

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the Washington County Republican Women. This article is purely for discussion purposes.

Op-Ed Contributor

Taking Marriage Private

Published: November 26, 2007
Olympia, Wash.

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.

In 1215, the church decreed that a “licit” marriage must take place in church. But people who married illictly had the same rights and obligations as a couple married in church: their children were legitimate; the wife had the same inheritance rights; the couple was subject to the same prohibitions against divorce.

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.

By the 1920s, 38 states prohibited whites from marrying blacks, “mulattos,” Japanese, Chinese, Indians, “Mongolians,” “Malays” or Filipinos. Twelve states would not issue a marriage license if one partner was a drunk, an addict or a “mental defect.” Eighteen states set barriers to remarriage after divorce.

In the mid-20th century, governments began to get out of the business of deciding which couples were “fit” to marry. Courts invalidated laws against interracial marriage, struck down other barriers and even extended marriage rights to prisoners.

But governments began relying on marriage licenses for a new purpose: as a way of distributing resources to dependents. The Social Security Act provided survivors’ benefits with proof of marriage. Employers used marital status to determine whether they would provide health insurance or pension benefits to employees’ dependents. Courts and hospitals required a marriage license before granting couples the privilege of inheriting from each other or receiving medical information.

In the 1950s, using the marriage license as a shorthand way to distribute benefits and legal privileges made some sense because almost all adults were married. Cohabitation and single parenthood by choice were very rare.

Today, however, possession of a marriage license tells us little about people’s interpersonal responsibilities. Half of all Americans aged 25 to 29 are unmarried, and many of them already have incurred obligations as partners, parents or both. Almost 40 percent of America’s children are born to unmarried parents. Meanwhile, many legally married people are in remarriages where their obligations are spread among several households.

Using the existence of a marriage license to determine when the state should protect interpersonal relationships is increasingly impractical. Society has already recognized this when it comes to children, who can no longer be denied inheritance rights, parental support or legal standing because their parents are not married.

As Nancy Polikoff, an American University law professor, argues, the marriage license no longer draws reasonable dividing lines regarding which adult obligations and rights merit state protection. A woman married to a man for just nine months gets Social Security survivor’s benefits when he dies. But a woman living for 19 years with a man to whom she isn’t married is left without government support, even if her presence helped him hold down a full-time job and pay Social Security taxes. A newly married wife or husband can take leave from work to care for a spouse, or sue for a partner’s wrongful death. But unmarried couples typically cannot, no matter how long they have pooled their resources and how faithfully they have kept their commitments.

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.

Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College, is the author of “Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage.”

4 Responses
  1. MaryAnn Andersen permalink
    January 16, 2010

    I think this is a great article for you to have on the Republican Women’s blog. When issues arise that concern the Constitution, Taxes, Property etc. I think it is fairly safe to make a blanket statement that all or most Republicans think alike. But when you come to private (marriage) or moral issues – you can no longer do that. I am a Republican because I firmly believe in the our Constitution and the freedom that it grants us. We need to remember that this document grants ALL MEN/WOMEN these liberties- not just white or black, gay or straight. ALL MEN/WOMEN have the right to life,liberty & the pursuit of happines. The moment we start making exceptions to that, is the moment that we loose those freedoms.

  2. Karen permalink
    January 16, 2010

    Very interesting article. I believe “marriage” should be between 1 man and 1 woman. However, what is my definition of “marriage”? I think of it as a personal, religious committment, and even further for myself it would be a sacrament in the Catholic Church. But that’s me and my beliefs. Why DID the government get so invested, and why did taxes and benefits get all tangled up into the union of two people? I have asked myself that. I also do think we need to (by example maybe?) get back some of our basic moral values that we’ve lost and in doing so, has contributed to a decline in many aspects of the American society. Maybe promoting marriage/committment especially when raising children might do that. So this is sometimes a difficult subject for me. It is definitely time that we all have honest and respectful conversations in order to reconcile our own moral beliefs along with our defense and love of the Constitution and the freedom it grants us.

  3. Lee permalink
    January 18, 2010

    Marriage by definition is a relation between a man and a woman who have become husband and wife. One thing is clear, even according to Professor Coontz, that throughout all of history, marriage has always been between a man and woman. She points out how the church and government got involved. What we do know is that the strength of any nation is dependent on the strength of the family. Empirical evidence also clearly shows that the best environment for the rearing of children is in a two parent (father and mother) home. The church and government know this importance and have worked to secure the strength of the family. Professor Coontz pointed out how marriage commitment is declining in our society by cohabitation, divorce, remarriage, etc. This will, and clearly has, weakened our society. It seams to me that we would be better off to work to restore marriage and family than to add to its further decline. Despite any faults or failures on the part of the church and government, to destroy the foundational strength of this nation by destroying the definition of marriage would be to our own ruination.

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