Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Strong minority opposes Arizona marriage amendment

I'm not surprised that more Arizonans support a proposed state constitutional amendment "that would define marriage as between one man and one woman" than don't. I am pleasantly surprised, however, that social conservatives enjoy a rather small advantage on the issue. According to the latest Cronkite-Eight poll, "[f]orty-nine percent favored the amendment, 40 percent opposed it and 11 percent said they were unsure how they felt." It's a bit trendy now to fret over the supposed gay threat to the oh-so-sacred rite of marriage, so it's nice to see that the Goldwateresque Arizona live-and-let live impulse still has a bit of life in it.

Actually, it's 40-percenters on the issue who are the traditionalists. As Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College, wrote for the New York Times back in November 2007:

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.

So ... What's all this nonsense about asking the county for a license to get hitched? How did that get started?

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.

Ah! So, you mean there's an unsavory origin to the government's intervention in what was previously a purely private matter? I never would have guessed.

Oddly, this means that the growing ranks of Americans living "in sin" (married couples now constitute a minority of households) are the ones harking back to the traditional concept of marriage by rejecting this newfangled idea about seeking state permission to lay their toothbrushes side-by-side.

Unfortunately, marriage has been turned into an administrative sub-unit of the state. Cohabiting couples may be perfectly happy with their arrangements, but they'll likely run into trouble when it comes to inheritance, making medical decisions for ill partners and collecting Social Security. That -- along with the fundamental respect to be found in being treated equally -- is why gay and lesbian couples have been so eager to gain the same access to marriage licenses as straight couples.

But easing paperwork for government officials seems like a poor reason for allowing the state to further expand its reach into our private lives. Surely, if neighbors, priests and judges found it possible for a thousand years to recognize privately constituted marriages as legitimate, Social Security administrators can eventually find their way to the same accomplishment.

Returning to privately arranged marriages could have the added benefit of allowing couples (or hell, any number of partners) to define the terms of their arrangements to their liking. Under state-defined marriage, government retains the power to redefine marriage in ways that may not please everybody concerned. As the Cato Institute's David Boaz wrote for Slate:

In the 20th century, however, government has intruded upon the marriage contract, among many others. Each state has tended to promulgate a standard, one-size-fits-all formula. Then, in the past generation, legislatures and courts have started unilaterally changing the terms of the marriage contract. Between 1969 and 1985 all the states provided for no-fault divorce. The new arrangements applied not just to couples embarking on matrimony but also to couples who had married under an earlier set of rules. Many people felt a sense of liberation; the changes allowed them to get out of unpleasant marriages without the often contrived allegations of fault previously required for divorce. But some people were hurt by the new rules, especially women who had understood marriage as a partnership in which one partner would earn money and the other would forsake a career in order to specialize in homemaking.

Returning to private rites, but with the very modern option of individually defining the terms of the marriage contract, would allow the conservative-minded to make arrangements under the authority of their religious institutions that please them, the experimental to customize something to their taste and would force nobody to believe that they were giving their imprimatur to relationships that offend their sensibilities.

Defining marriage "as between one man and one woman"? Well, that just wouldn't be an issue for political debate.

And wouldn't it be nice if matters of love and relationships weren't the subject of political debate?

Forty percent of Arizonans oppose an amendment defining the meaning of marriage? Let's move toward a solution that allows everybody to define their own marriage.

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Anonymous Jake in Arizona said...

True, married couples are probably a minority to single or "in sin" companionships, but how many of those "in sin" or single are gay/lesbian? Gay and lesbian couples are a definite minority in our country, so why would the laws be rewritten to FAVOR them? While I agree that their rights need to be protected, how does the collection of social security qualify as a denial of basic rights? Social security was set up to (as I understand it) provide a security network in case of job loss, DEPRESSION (as in Great Depression), or other economic necessity. It is not a retirement fund. Inheritance laws are similarly in place. If the partners have a written will, then (at least in theory) their inheritance from a deceased partner should be secured. Granted, one could contest the will, but if it was properly prepared, it should withstand assaults or challenges.
As for previous centuries, what does that really matter? I could argue inversely for the 19th century that few (if any) gay or lesbian couples would have approached a pastor or other official to bless a "marriage", simply for fear of the reaction.

If the majority of "couples" are now unmarried or single, then how does an "official" marriage give gays/lesbians any kind of social parity? if anything, they will once gain find themselves outcasts in the minority, barring any drastic change in general sentiment.

A question I might ask is: Where does it end? I have no objection to any of the rights already established in certain states...hospitalization, medical care, fair housing, employment, probate, etc...but should this amendment be passed, will we eventually impose on the various religious institutions and REQUIRE them to honor same sex marriage? Will gay/lesbian rights groups impose then pressure the state to force the various churches to amend long held religious beliefs to accommodate the changed laws? What right does the state have to impose such regulation? Or is this to be the beginning of the blurring of the lines between church and state?

I may seem simplistic, but the question remains: what is the gain for the population as a whole, and where does it end?

September 27, 2008 8:44 AM  
Blogger J.D. Tuccille said...


I'm not saying the laws should be rewritten to favor same-sex couples, only that they shouldn't be allowed to discriminate against them.

That's why my preferred solution is to privatize marriage -- make it an arrangement between the couple, their family and friends, and no government licensing body that gets to sniff at the details and pass judgment.

That's a far cry from forcing your church to recognize relationships that it finds repugnant.

And the net benefit? Less discrimination, more liberty and a reduced government presence in people's lives.

September 27, 2008 8:39 PM  
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March 18, 2009 11:52 PM  

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