Saturday, March 16, 2013

Some thoughts on Marriage

Marriage is a religious rite that has been adopted as a secular legal institution. As a religious rite, it is up to the individual religions to decide how it gets managed. There is not a whole lot of debate on the religious rite aspects. Most American religions maintain a traditional monogamist heterosexual definition of marriage. There are also religions that condone polygamy and others that allow same-sex marriage. You could probably find others that have other definitions or attitudes about the rite.

Since this religious institution was so common, the secular government has found the rite to be useful base for its legal institutions. It had already been adopted by the dominant religion and had been extremely useful in regulating standard relationships among people.

Initially, marriage was used in part to regulate sexual activity. This has largely been dropped from current legal framework. (You don't see many people bearing scarlet A's in this country.) Alas, there is very little in strong legal framework to replace it. Sex crimes are some of the most strongly punished crimes, with people required to be on registries even after serving the sentence. Yet, the barrier between legal and not legal is in the mind of the participants. If it is consensual (and both parties are deemed capable of providing consent) then it is legal. If one person does not provide "legal" consent, then it is a heinous crime. Alas, there is no formal means for providing consent. (You don't see people filling out a "consent" contract.) So, it comes down to what people thought at the time. In attempt to protect the harmed, the names of victims are not reported in the media; however no protection is given for the names of the accused. (Alas, this can open the system for abuse, as somebody can remain anonymous while dragging another's name through the mud.)

Marriage has also been used as a means of regulating reproductive activity. Potential partners are required to have a sufficiently different genetic history in order to provide a diverse "breeding stock". (Marriage among immediate family members is prohibited.) Blood tests were often performed to check for irregularity. Regulations were also made to require similar racial status of partners. (People of similar races were deemed preferred.) There have also been regulations on mental status of the partners. Today, however, the government for the most part has dropped out of the eugenics business, with only a few rules remaining.

Marriage is a valuable institution for ensuring the children are properly cared for. Records can also be traced to determine genetic history and propensity towards various diseases. Marriage provides rights and benefits for both parents to provide for a basic level of care for the children. While the government is still heavily involved in child care, it has been doing so largely outside of the realms of marriage. Many children are born to unmarried parents or even to mothers who are not sure who the father is. Marriage can be used to help determine custody and responsibility for children, but marriage is often not involved when there are problems.

Another useful aspect of marriage is in providing a legal framework for the relationship among different people. A marriage is deemed to be an implicit legal contract with many rights and responsibilities. The tax system provides both benefits and penalties for those that are married. There are also rights for inheritance, medical directives and other areas. These rights are granted based on marriage. Most of these rights can also be obtained through legal activity. However, the tax status is perhaps the only thing that can only be obtained through state-recognized marriage.

So where does that leave the current marriage debate? Basically, the secular use of marriage has been debased of most of its legal utility. Most of the "obligations" are now assumed outside of actual marriage. However, there are still a number of legal benefits reserved for those that are married. And now, through the courts, there is an attempt to extend the remaining benefits to homosexual couples under the name of "gay marriage".

On the surface, the idea sounds noble. It appears to be extending equality. After all, interracial marriage was once restricted, but now is accepted. Why not extend same-sex marriage? Alas, the big issue is the nature of marriage as a religious institution. The secular definition at one time was tightly intertwined with the religious definition. Now most of the secular purposes have significantly diverged from the legal purposes?

Why don't we separate marriage and secular unions? The "secular" version would be a special form of legal partnership. Like other partnerships, it would not discriminate based on age, sex, race, family relation or anything else. It would also allow multiple participants. Dissolving the partnership or breaking the agreements would require going through the appropriate channels in the legal system. Existing marriages and domestic partnerships would retain their same rates and be migrated in to the new legal system. Same-sex partners would now gain all the legal rights they desire. (No longer would there be a differentiation between some state laws and federal tax status,) Polygamous relationships could also be officially recognized. (No longer would only one spouse get the "privilege" of marriage.) Even family members could adopt this status. (Two siblings could receive the benefits of the partnership even with purely filial relationships.) This solves most of the "issues" gay-marriage advocates are attempting to solve as well as the more quiet "issues" of many others. It also keeps the government more clearly out of the religious realm. Marriage could then be strengthened as a strong family religious relationship.

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