SAN FRANCISCO - JUNE 17: Same-sex couple Ariel Owens (R) and his spouse Joseph Barham walk arm in arm after they were married at San Francisco City Hall June 17, 2008 in San Francisco, California. Same-sex couples throughout California are rushing to get married as counties begin issuing marriage license after a State Supreme Court ruling to allow same-sex marriage. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
Maryland is set to become the sixth state to recognize full same-sex marriage.
Supporters rallied at the state capital in Annapolis Monday as part of a nationwide Valentine’s Day campaign in support of gay marriage. And while the final vote is expected to be close, two more senators, Katherine Klausmeier and Edward Kasemayer, came out in support yesterday.
Meanwhile in the District, opponents of gay marriage, rebuffed by the courts, are hoping social conservatives in the House of Representatives will void D.C.’s same-sex marriage law, or at least force a referendum. The prospect concerns supporters so much that several candidates for the At-Large D.C. Council seat -- all supporters of gay marriage -- were asked at a recent candidate forum how they would react if D.C. residents voted down same-sex marriage at the polls.
Attitudes toward gay marriage are changing across the nation. In April 2009, a nationwide poll showed a plurality of respondents backing legal gay marriage for the first time ever. In the same poll just five years earlier, less than one-third backed gay marriage. This change should come as no surprise -- societal attitudes about marriage are constantly evolving. Anti-miscegenation laws were not ruled unconstitutional in the U.S. until 1967’s Loving v. Virginia, and we are not that far from the day when my grandparents faced chastisement because they professed different interpretations of the same Christian faith.
But marriage, gay or straight, was not a big concern of the early Christian church. Holy matrimony was not made a sacrament until the 12th Century, and it would be another four hundred years before there would be anything like a standard wedding ritual.
And for a long time, the government didn't care much, either. According to Oxford historian Lawrence Stone, an early European marriage was “a private contract between two families,” and “for those without property, it was a private contract between two individuals.” In England, the government did not get into the marriage business until 1754.
So why involve the government at all?
There seem to be just two areas where the government has any real interest. In the case of the first, determining custodial and property questions, new processes are already being worked out. With so many nontraditional families today, courts and arbitrators handle many of these questions, and could continue to do so whether a marriage was approved by the state or not. The second case is taxation, where it is true that marriage status plays a big role. But this is an argument for tax reform, not continued marriage apartheid.
Opponents of gay marriage tout the sanctity of “traditional” marriage, though it is laughable to suggest Britney Spears’s 55-hour union was more sacred than the relationship between lesbian activists Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon, who were finally permitted to marry after 56 years. But perhaps the best solution to the marriage dilemma is to actually revert to the institution’s real “traditional” roots -- as a non-governmental compact.
If the government got out of the wedding game, consenting parties could enter into marriage contracts based on whatever standards they like. Religions would remain free to set rules to which its members must adhere, while others could follow their own personal dictates. Marriage is a matter for its participants, their families, and if they choose, their faiths. Bureaucrats and regulators need not crash the reception any longer.
Follow P.J. Orvetti on Twitter at @PJOinDC