Friday, July 31, 2009

How I would defend marriage

A few months ago, marriage equality was a hot topic here in New York State, and Albany UU minister Sam Trumbore's blog reports on it today. Orthodox commenters on his blog have predictably thrown up the usual blather about "logical extremes," like marriage among multiple partners, and continue the cant about "traditional" marriage.

That the traditional meaning of marriage has been between a man and a woman is, in fact, up for grabs. For most of recorded history, marriage was between a man or boy and a female of any age, including newborns, designated by their families to be contracted to that male. The participation of the female in the contract has been expected only in recent centuries in some countries. So tradition is a weak reed to depend upon in support of this argument.

Our society expects adult men and women to participate in the contract as equals. For myself and the women I've known, participating as an equal trumps every other possible variation in defining the marital contract. But once you accept men and women as equal partners, the question does arise about equal treatment of both men and women as to whom they prefer to marry.

Ethnic and religious custom does not trump civil law when civil law sets a bottom age limit as to who can be married. Why should custom then trump civil law about who marries whom? Society has already accepted having people of different races and religions marrying each other. Indeed, society accepts selling yourself into marriage, and society accepts sequential marriages with divorces in between. Custom has changed as civil law has.

I suggest that the stumbling block here comes from our acceptance of a religious contract as equal to or supplanting a civil contract. The civil contract supplants the religious one at the time of a divorce (although pious Jews and Catholics may take the extra step of arranging a religious dissolution as well).

We would take nothing away from religion if we defined marriage as the civil contract, and let the civil contract take place between two consenting adults, period. Those religious groups that choose to discriminate against individuals because of color, race, or gender preference could, because the equal protection of the civil law would be untouched.

In other words, the religious contract of marriage would have no civil value. To be legally married -- with all the privileges and duties of civil marriage -- would be wholly the job of civil authorities. Mormon clergy could continue to marry old men to their 10-year-old great-nieces but that ceremony would have no civil standing. Catholic and Anglican priests could refuse to marry whomever their bishops direct them to discriminate against, without taking away from those individuals' human and legal rights to marry those whom they love.

Is there a protest about these religions' rights to perform rituals? Perform away, I say. Do any states accept a baptismal certificate in place of a birth certificate? Does administration of last rites supersede a certificate of death? Of course not. Religions do their thing and the state handles its own documentation, and civil documentation has the last word legally.

1 comment:

Mira Costa said...

Interesting thoughts. Would it be a change? Does religious marriage carry civil weight now? When I married, in a church, in California in 1965, I was required to get a civil certificate first. The church wedding was a traditional ritual; the certificate made me legally married.
Is this your point?: The civil authorities should go ahead and grant a contract that creates a legal unit out of individuals - with all the benefits that accrue to these formal units - and those individuals can then celebrate that newly formed unit in any way, under any organization they want.
If so, I agree.
But why not call that legal certificate a civil contract, and let whatever organizations and groups - religious or otherwise - perform marriages? The legal protections are in place for individuals committed to pooling their financial and emotional resources for life or for the long term. What does it matter what this unit is called?