When the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that states must recognize same-sex marriages, dissenting Chief Justice John Roberts wondered whether polygamy will be next. Some legal scholars have responded that yes, the arguments for gay marriage could apply to relationships among more than two partners, as well. William Baude, a law professor at the University of Chicago, wrote, "By those lights, groups of adults who have profound polyamorous attachments and wish to build families and join the community have a strong claim to a right to marry."
There's a more basic question here: Why is government in the business of conferring a right to marry at all? What is it about this thing called marriage that justifies a grab bag of legal benefits? That would include tax advantages, inheritance rights, hospital visitations and the ability to make end-of-life decisions for one's spouse.
The recent Supreme Court case disposed of the idea that only a man and woman can provide a stable home for children. Many gay couples do a better job of raising children than some heterosexual pairings. And in any case, children have never been a requirement for marriage.
Baude inadvertently points to the illogic of tying any benefits to state-sanctioned marriage by using the word "polyamorous" in referring to polygamous relationships.
Merriam-Webster defines polyamory as "the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time." It makes no sense that having a romance (or two or three) should entitle one to leave an estate to a partner tax-free or get in on another's company health plan.
We can be totally in tune with the notion that such benefits help families. And we can agree that children tend to be better off in households headed by devoted parents.
Marriage is a wonderful institution, but it does not follow that government should be defining it. Let ministers, priests, rabbis, imams and ship captains tie the marital knot. And have government recognize civil unions only.
Civil unions need not be between romantic partners. The pairing could be close friends, cousins, office mates. And of course, it could be a church-sanctioned spouse.
Sorry, polygamists, only one civil union partner at a time. If your lawyers should design plausible legal group arrangements, we'll reconsider.
At the time of the high court's decision, Roberts opined that "people of faith can take no comfort in the treatment they receive from the majority today." In an ideal world, the opposite would be true. Religious authorities would have greater control over the terms of holy matrimony. They would control the definition of marriage and decide whom they will or will not join. More than one clergyman has confided to me that he would just as soon not be conferring legal benefits when he marries people.
The Catholic Church does not countenance divorce, and an annulment is difficult to get. The church makes its rules. Other faiths make their rules according to their creeds. The state should have no business here.
If a couple want to register their silver pattern and have a guru marry them at dawn on Mount Tamalpais, that should be their choice. If they want to be partnered with the legal rights of a civil union, as well, they should be able to find a bureaucrat in downtown San Rafael to do the paperwork.
Everyone would win. People of faith could continue to enter into marriages with, if anything, more powerful rules. Those wanting a less intensely religious union could get one. And best of all, we would end the odd custom whereby government grants financial and emotional advantages on the basis of an implied romance.
(A member of the Providence Journal editorial board, Froma Harrop writes a nationally syndicated column from that city. She has written for such diverse publications as The New York Times, Harper's Bazaar and Institutional Investor.)
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