February 9, 2016

WELL, YES AND NO: Sarah Wright, the chair of a group called Unmarried Equality, writes in the Washington Post,  “Why It’s Time to Stop Glorifying Marriage.”

In an era when the average American now spends the majority of his or her life unmarried, it is time to stop glorifying and privileging marriage to the total exclusion of all other patterns of family formation, caregiving relationship, living arrangement and property ownership. Despite its ubiquity, marriage is exactly “one size does not fit all.” Yet at the same time, the high price of being single in the United States is a well-known fact of life. What’s a thinking person to do?

For the majority of children now born outside of marriage, (estimated atroughly half of births today), the ramifications of growing up in an unmarried household are generally immediate and negative: Increased poverty is all but guaranteed. At the same time, promoting marriage at taxpayer expense to solve this problem has been a colossal boondoggle. For starters, there was little demand from its target audience, not to mention that marriage has a nearly 50 percent failure rate. . . .

In fact, public support for people who constitute functional but poor families of any type should be based entirely on need. If the body politic ever reaches consensus on comprehensive immigration reform, for example, marital status could be replaced by citizenship as the basis for doling out various benefits. This is in line with more recent suggestions that the state remove some of the benefits attached to marriage and give them to those who need them most. Another option would be to expand the definition of family to encompass more than just romantic unions, and to extend the benefits of marriage to the unmarried, including the advantages that accrue through Social Security and tax law.

Or, the state could leave the marriage business altogether. Various red states moved to eliminate all marriage licenses as recently as last year, in anticipation of and reacting to the Obergefell gay marriage decision. Just last month, a Republican lawmaker in Indiana introduced a bill that would abolish marriage licenses in the Hoosier State. . . .

Privatizing marriage is an idea that draws together strange bedfellows — fromlibertarians to feministsliberals to conservatives; and academics to clerics. Yet what binds our common view is the notion that personal relationships are best defined by individuals themselves. Since we all engage in various contractual agreements everyday, the basic concept is hardly new.

Abolishing marriage as a legal category would not eliminate the institution, which has enduring appeal for many people. What it could bring is a real understanding that unmarried families exist and that unmarried adults deserve full representation in society — not just a little extra love around Valentine’s Day.

The writer is correct in her observation that marriage isn’t for everyone. I (sadly) know too many people who are married solely for their own convenience (usually financial), and not because of any notions about love, fidelity or devotion. And hey, I understand how such marriages can be rationalized based purely on self-interest: Who wants to lose half of the assets they’ve worked hard to accumulate just because they aren’t “in love” anymore?  On the other hand, when there is genuine love, or when there are children involved, marriage is non pareil.

The writer is also correct that the time may have come for getting the state out of the business of defining marriage. Now that the Supreme Court has made it clear that “the right to personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy,” the scope of this “right to personal choice” regarding marriage presumably cannot be arbitrarily defined (and thus limited) by the state.

If one’s own happiness and individuality leads to loving two, three, or even four people at the same time, what right does the state have to prohibit polygamy? Now that the traditional procreative and corollary child-rearing justifications of one man, one woman marriage have been constitutionally dispensed with, there is no longer any principled constitutional basis for limiting marriage to two people. The Supreme Court in Obergefell desperately tried to use the phrase “two people” as much as possible, but logically, its autonomy-based analytical framework for recognizing same-sex marriage will not justify such numerical limitations in the long-term.

If the Constitution no longer allows gender or (presumably) even numerical limitations on state-sanctioned definitions of marriage, then perhaps it is indeed time for the state to get out of the marriage business altogether, leaving marriage as it was until about the mid-to-late 1700s: a private, usually church-sanctioned, status.

The times they are a-changin‘.

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