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The State's Role in Marriage (Part 2)

Read Part 1 of this article.

Today, as Canadians (or at least those of us who vote) are choosing our government for the next five years, I want to recall the words of a former national leader.

On Dec. 22, 1967, defending the decriminalization of homosexual behaviour, Pierre Elliott Trudeau opined that "The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation."

To this dictum I would simply add, provided those in the bedrooms are consenting adults.

In last week's column I argued that the state should have no role in limiting consenting human sexual and romantic relationships.

Right-wing ideologues oppose divorce, same-sex marriage, and gay and lesbian relationships. But no government has any business preventing adults from engaging in these activities.

Today I want to suggest that we need to rethink the ancient practice of confining legal recognition and privileges only to marriage and marriage-like relationships.

Currently, government-regulated marriage provides enormous personal benefits to married persons. In most places married people acquire rights and privileges, just by virtue of being married, in such areas as taxation, adoption, child custody, insurance, immigration, inheritance, pensions, health benefits, family residence and recognition across jurisdictions.

Given the value of these benefits, why do we collectively choose to bestow them only on legally sanctioned marriages?

The answer might seem obvious: in order to protect the children of such relationships.

But as we all know, on the one hand, many marriages do not produce children, and on the other hand, many children live in households where their parent or parents are not married.

The real and compelling issue for state recognition, I would argue, is dependency.

In bestowing benefits upon certain relationships, the state should be protecting those who are vulnerable and dependent upon others.

Children are obviously in this category. But it also includes adults with serious cognitive disabilities, persons with incapacitating physical disabilities, and aging people who may be gradually losing capacities and competencies.

Human beings can experience dependency at any age, and many who are now reasonably self-reliant will one day be in need of care and support.

Certainly, if parents are caring for their dependent children, then that relationship deserves recognition and protection. And if a husband is supporting his disablesd spouse, then that relationship deserves recognition and protection.

But also, if a parent is caring for an adult disabled child, why not recognize and protect that relationship with benefits? If a woman is supporting her chronically ill grandfather, why not recognize and protect that relationship? If two elderly sisters or friends share a household in order to pool their meagre financial resources, why not recognize and protect that relationship?

If the state is going to give its imprimatur to relationships, there isn't a great social need for its primary focus to be on romantic and sexual relationships. Rather, the focus should be on relationships involving people who need protecting and their caregivers.

In short, there seems little need for the state to be in the marriage business, per se, and a lot more need for it to give support and recognition to relationships of dependency.

I know what the objections would be: What about the sanctity of holy matrimony? What about recognizing married couples?

Certainly. If consenting, autonomous adults of whatever sex or sexual orientation wish to marry, they should be free to do so.

Religious institutions can continue to bless certain marriages or not, as their teachings dictate. And individuals could also choose to engage in secular rituals and celebrations of whatever sort seems appropriate to marking their commitment and love.

None of the ceremony or sanctification attached to weddings need change, although I hope that religious leaders will eventually see their way beyond biases against those who are not heterosexual.

Is my idea that the state is irrelevant to marriage inconsistent with arguing in favour of the legitimacy of same-sex marriage? Not at all.

The state is not entitled to violate the rights of gay and lesbian citizens by limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples. When that prohibition is withdrawn, then same-sex couples can marry, just as heterosexual couples can. That is, they can engage in whatever secular or religious ceremony they choose to affirm and announce their commitment.

But Canadians should consider whether the state belongs in the marriage business. Its role is much more appropriate in supporting and sustaining relationships of vulnerability and dependency.

Almost forty years after he made it, Trudeau's pithy statement, "The state has no place in the bedrooms of the nation," is still true and important today.

©2004 Christine Overall - a feminist and a professor of philosophy at Queen's University, Kingston, ON, Canada.