Marriage is an ancient tradition that has existed in some form for all of human history. Every major religion has rules establishing and managing marriage, including the recognition of marriage, divorce, and re-marriage. However, in most countries, it is the government that regulates marriage, establishing laws for how marriage should be legally recognized and regulated. Should government have any say whatsoever in what people call “marriage?”
Obviously, it is in the public good to have laws regulating child support. If two people have sexual relations and the result is a baby, then the biological mother and father should be required to pay support for their offspring unless a third party voluntarily assumes responsibility such as in adoption. Similarly, government has the responsibility to enforce an arbitrary age of consent that everyone recognizes with exceptions, such as mentally incompetent or incapacitated adults. Government has a clear role protecting the welfare of children to ensure someone is properly feeding, housing, and caring for children. The care of children has typically been one of the responsibilities of marriage, but this is becoming less of a factor as birth out of wedlock continues to skyrocket.
What are the legal rights established by marriage? Most are financial such as defining distributions for the dissolution of assets, default assignment of financial beneficiaries, shared financial liabilities, etc. Others are responsibility based such as power of attorney, information access, hospital visitation rights, etc. I seriously doubt that most traditional definitions of marriage emerging from religions care one way or the other about these details, focusing more on the commitment between two individuals.
What are the legal negatives around marriage? The biggest is taxes. Married couples who both work pay more in taxes than two unmarried people who share a household and who pay taxes individually. Married people combine their incomes, reducing the deductions available to one spouse and increasing the tax rate on their combined income. Similarly, when married people choose to end their relationships, some states actually create restrictions on how divorces can occur such as requiring an assignment of blame. Two unmarried people simply separate and decide individually how to split up shared assets.
Why have we allowed government to have so much say over the relationships between individuals? Divorce lawyers are a government created industry. Because of the perceived benefits of government regulated marriage, committed homosexual couples have insisted that their relationships also be called marriage in spite of the objections of so many religious bodies. I support the concept of gay marriage with respect to the default rights such as hospital visitation and assignment of financial benefits, but I understand the objections of religious groups who are appalled by having the marriage label associated with unions they would never sanction.
I think it is time to get government out of marriage. Instead, I would like to see a simple set of paperwork that can be filed anywhere assigning default power of attorney and default financial beneficiaries between any two people. This concept could be called pairriage or simply “recognition of responsibility.” Along with this base contract, two people could create a default contract of community property where all assets are assigned joint ownership, requiring a 50/50 split on dissolution. This would allow people to have visitation rights in hospitals, information rights, and other rights that two people may choose to share without a religiously recognized marriage. Dissolution could be initiated by either party with or without the shared party’s consent. However, the dissolution rules could not be ignored without the agreement of both participants.
Pairraige would get around the sticky issues of gay marriage, non-sexual relationships such as siblings or committed friends, etc. Marriage would be stricken from our body of laws. Marriage would be assigned by private entities that could then extend the basic “pairraige” contract in any way they choose, such as making it harder to get a divorce or adding additional penalties in the case of dissolution. They could also add additional restrictions such as participation in a particular church, etc. Couples who wanted to have the label “marriage” assigned to their pairriage contracts would have to petition a marriage granting organization to extend and sanction their relationship in any way that organization saw fit. This would then put the responsibility of defining marriage back in the hands of the organizations from where marriage was originally defined, and remove government interference in the relationships of individuals.
Pairriage would eliminate the financial negatives of marriage, allow unmarried couples and individuals in non-sexual relationships to establish some basic privileges, and allow individual institutions to establish their own definitions of marriage with appropriate legal protections.
Government’s job should be the enforcement of contracts between people and not defining who a man or woman chooses to call his or her spouse.