Rapidly climbing the Most Emailed Articles list over at the New York Times is an op-ed entitled Taking Marriage Private, by Professor Stephanie Coontz. It includes an interesting history of the legal regulation of marriage (which Coontz observes is a fairly recent phenomenon):
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 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.
A prohibition on marrying fabulous Filipinos? Your loss. Everyone knows Filipinos are great lovers.
More after the jump.
Some years later, anti-miscegenation laws were struck down:
In the mid-20th century, governments began to get out of the business of deciding which couples were “fit” to marry. Courts invalidated laws against interracial marriage, struck down other barriers and even extended marriage rights to prisoners.
But governments began relying on marriage licenses for a new purpose: as a way of distributing resources to dependents. The Social Security Act provided survivors’ benefits with proof of marriage. Employers used marital status to determine whether they would provide health insurance or pension benefits to employees’ dependents. Courts and hospitals required a marriage license before granting couples the privilege of inheriting from each other or receiving medical information.
Coontz argues — pretty persuasively, in our view — that this view of marriage may be outdated:
In the 1950s, using the marriage license as a shorthand way to distribute benefits and legal privileges made some sense because almost all adults were married. Cohabitation and single parenthood by choice were very rare.
Today, however, possession of a marriage license tells us little about people’s interpersonal responsibilities. Half of all Americans aged 25 to 29 are unmarried, and many of them already have incurred obligations as partners, parents or both. Almost 40 percent of America’s children are born to unmarried parents. Meanwhile, many legally married people are in remarriages where their obligations are spread among several households.
Using the existence of a marriage license to determine when the state should protect interpersonal relationships is increasingly impractical. Society has already recognized this when it comes to children, who can no longer be denied inheritance rights, parental support or legal standing because their parents are not married.
So here’s where she ends up:
Perhaps it’s time to revert to a much older marital tradition. Let churches decide which marriages they deem “licit.” But let couples — gay or straight — decide if they want the legal protections and obligations of a committed relationship.
Here’s what we’re wondering. How would a “privatization” of marriage, or a separation of marriage’s religious and civic aspects, affect family lawyers? Would it mean more business for them, as gay couples as well as straights get together (prenups) and break apart (divorces)? Or would it erode the importance of the matrimonial bar, by reducing the state’s overall role in regulating personal relationships?
Taking Marriage Private [New York Times]