Sunday, July 16, 2006

The Right to What??

One of the articles I read recently on the gay marriage flap quoted a judge who asked on what basis the state of California could refuse to extend "the right of marriage itself" to same-sex couples. Not the rite of marriage, but the right.

Now, just a minute here. Americans talk a lot about their rights (and not enough about their obligations, but that's another post); but where do we get a right to marry? Marriage is a voluntary contract between two people; marriage is a rite, as in a ceremony or ritual; when did it become a right, as in, something we are all entitled to have, like iPods and stereos and double cappucino no-fat lattes? If marriage is a right, how come I spent 10 years as a single divorcee?

I asked my co-worker Mike
this question, and he said, "Marriage became a right when it became a tax break," and the awful thing is, I'm afraid he's right. Correct. The marriage relationship and the property and tax codes of this country are wound together in a way that makes a mockery of the separation of church and state. Married people pay fewer taxes. Married people have the right to visit each other in the hospital if they're really sick. Married people inherit each other's property, even when they're too lazy or scared to make wills. We seem, thank God, to have quit blaming children for being "illegitimate" when their parents don't bother to get married, but we still regard people who aren't married as somehow less fit to raise children. And the 50% divorce rate doesn't seem to affect any of these opinions.

A few days ago, the San Francisco Chronicle printed a wonderful opinion piece on this subject by Robin Lakoff, a U.C. Berkeley professor of linguistics; I strongly recommend it. According to Ms. Lakoff, the purpose of a constitution is to define the agreed relationship between the government and the governed. That being the case, she argues, it has no place for rules about relationships between members of "the governed" - that would be us. She states, "Marriage is a relationship in which the government is not a direct participant." The proper place for rules governing relationships between individuals, such as marriage, is in statutory law, not in the Constitution. At that point you get to argue about whose statutes, federal or state; but the Constitution is clearly the wrong place for anything to do with marriage.

But is she right? When you go down to city hall and get a marriage license, the government issues it; and you do that even when you're getting married in a church. Then there are all those tax laws; not to mention our Fearless Leader trying to make learning how to stay married a condition for getting welfare. This could go on and on; but the more I think about it, the more I think I want the government to get its nose out of the personal relationships between human beings, except in cases of domestic violence.


  1. Anonymous7:56 AM

    I, of course, come to this from a different direction. It is interesting to me though that I reach about the same place. To me marriage is a union ordained by God. Since it is his, he defines it, not the government. The government can’t redefine it or “protect” its definition. That being said, when the government decided to attach benefits to the union, they need to extend the same benefits to everyone. So I favor a civil union for whomever, but think marriage is a little different. I know in some countries, you can do both, the government requires you to have a civil union, and then any church related union is your own business. Maybe we should go that route.

  2. Anonymous9:07 PM

    Marriage is a social institution that evolved as social structures evolved. Not sure what else there is to say about it, except that people should be as fully and freely enfranchised as possible in whatever social structure they are a part of, but then I'm a raving secular humanist idealist with eclectic socialist leanings.

    Civil unions with all the benefits of any other kind of marriage is fine with me. I'd also like to have any two people who feel closely bonded and who are a household to be treated with the same respect and treatment under civil law as those in a traditional union. Let property considerations, etc., be a matter of contracts.

    A church wedding seems to me to be a valuable way for people of that particular faith to add that imprimatur to their relationship, but the injection of any religious belief as a requirement, let alone a Constitutional amendment, regarding a civil matter leaves me cold.

    Thanks for nothing, DDE, for inserting "under God" into the Pledge of Allegiance. Bad enough that it's on the money, which in the case of the televangelists is where it belongs.

    OK, I've ranted myself out.

    I do think you're right, Stephen, regarding civil/church unions.

    Anonymous David