by Jen Lade
One of the many divisive issues in the United States is whether the federal government should allow two people of the same gender to get married. Ballot questions try to legalize it in some states and ban it in others; supporters have rallies and preachers rail against it from the pulpits.
For those in support of gay marriage, the issue is usually twofold: they want homosexual couples to be afforded the same rights as heterosexual couples, and they want them to be recognized by society as having a legitimate marriage. For those against it, they see the federal recognition of gay marriage as a cheapening of the definition of marriage, which in their religion is between a man and a woman.
The way everyone is up in arms about this, you’d think you’d have to be pro-gay marriage or anti-gay marriage. But there’s a third option, and it’s my personal favorite: get the government out of marriage.
What if the government just stopped recognizing marriages? What if they stopped with the benefits or penalties that married people get so there was no reason for the government to have to sanction marriage—and no reason for people to want a government-sanctioned marriage?
Or what if these benefits and penalties weren’t linked to marriage in the formal sense but could be conferred on any two people simply by the signing of a form?
What would remain is a bunch of couples—heterosexual and homosexual—who want to make a commitment to each other ‘til death do them part.
For many, just pronouncing that commitment to each other will be enough. Others will want their commitment to be recognized by their family and friends with a secular ceremony. Many others will also want God to bless their marriage, and so they will get married in a church by a celebrant of a religious denomination. But they’ll all be equally unmarried in the eyes of the government.
To get the federal benefits of marriage—more than 1,000, according to religioustolerance.org —two people would have to register with the government.
I went to Nolo.com to find a list of some of the more notable benefits, currently reserved for married heterosexual couples. They include:
- Filing joint income tax returns with the IRS and state taxing authorities.
- Creating a “family partnership” under federal tax laws, which allows you to divide business income among family members.
Estate Planning Benefits
- Inheriting a share of your spouse’s estate.
- Receiving an exemption from both estate taxes and gift taxes for all property you give or leave to your spouse.
- Receiving Social Security, Medicare, and disability benefits for spouses.
- Receiving veterans’ and military benefits for spouses, such as those for education, medical care, or special loans.
- Obtaining insurance benefits through a spouse’s employer.
- Taking family and bereavement leave if your spouse is ill or dies
- Receiving wages, workers’ compensation, and retirement plan benefits for a deceased spouse.
- Visiting your spouse in a hospital intensive care unit or during restricted visiting hours in other parts of a medical facility.
- Making medical decisions for your spouse if he or she becomes incapacitated and unable to express wishes for treatment.
- Consenting to after-death examinations and procedures.
- Making burial or other final arrangements.
- Filing for stepparent or joint adoption.
- Applying for joint foster care rights.
- Living in neighborhoods zoned for “families only.”
- Automatically renewing leases signed by your spouse.
- Receiving family rates for health, homeowners’, auto, and other types of insurance.
- Receiving tuition discounts and permission to use school facilities.
Other Legal Benefits and Protections
- Suing a third person for wrongful death of your spouse and loss of consortium (loss of intimacy).
- Claiming the marital communications privilege, which means a court can’t force you to disclose the contents of confidential communications between you and your spouse during your marriage.
- Receiving crime victims’ recovery benefits if your spouse is the victim of a crime.
- Obtaining immigration and residency benefits for noncitizen spouse.
It appears to me that most of these benefits deal with two people having special rights associated to one other person. You can visit your spouse in the ICU after visiting hours; you can file a joint federal tax return with your spouse; you can adopt a child with your spouse.
For most of these, it also doesn’t seem to me to have to be someone you are romantically involved with. Why can’t your aunt be the one to make medical decisions for you if you both consent to it? Why can’t the one person receiving an exemption from estate taxes and gift taxes for your property be your brother if you so choose?
Instead of all these benefits automatically falling to your spouse, you’d have to fill out the proper form to appoint the one person who gets payments in the event of your disability, the one person who makes burial decisions after your death, even the one person with whom you can jointly file your taxes. Is there a reason these couldn’t be three different people?
As for consumer or employment benefits, such as getting discounted insurance or getting paid time off to care for an ill spouse, these should be up to the retailers and employers anyway, not the government. Maybe my car insurance company wants to give a family discount to the honor sorority at the local college, even though none of them are related. Great. Not the government’s problem. Maybe your company gives people paid time off to take their dog to the vet. Maybe your company doesn’t allow for any paid time off, even to care for a spouse. If you don’t like it, work for someone else.
I think the Webmaster’s comment on ReligiousTolerance.org put it nicely:
“If marriage were considered like baptism, there would be no problem, because it has no civic meaning; it is purely religious . . .
. . . If marriage were like a driver’s license or registering a business, there would be no problem. Any two people who could meet the qualifications (fee, minimum age and genetic remoteness) would sign an application form, and the government would assign them certain rights and privileges.
The problem is that marriage has traditionally been interpreted as having both a civic and a religious function. Perhaps it is time for a change.”
The point is, if there is no federal benefit to marriage itself, there is no need to fight over the definition. It can be different for every group of people. If it’s legitimacy a couple is looking for, they will be sure to find it with some institution. Any given couple’s “marriage” will also probably be rejected by some people. But that’s OK; without government interference, popular opinion is just that—an opinion, with no consequences for the couple’s way of life. And if it’s God’s approval we’re looking for, a law isn’t going to change His mind about which marriages are legit—and I don’t profess to know God’s mind on the topic.
So am I missing something? That’s not a rhetorical question. Couldn’t we just erase all government recognition of marriages and call it a day? It seems to me that like 95 percent of the things Americans fight over, this would be resolved a lot faster if the government would just back off.