Get Government Out of Marriage

The Colorado Freedom Report:  A libertarian journal of politics and culture.

The Colorado Freedom

Get Government Out of Marriage

by Ari Armstrong

[This article originally appeared in the November 6, 2003 edition of Boulder Weekly.]

I had a great wedding to mark the beginning of a happy marriage. I didn't even know about the last-minute wedding-cake fiasco until later on. I was only mildly distracted by my churning insides.

There's only one thing I wish I'd done differently. I wish I hadn't gotten a damned license from the state. Okay, I'll be tagged and tracked, licensed and registered to drive a car on government roads. But to be licensed by a bunch of bureaucrats for the most private and sacred act of marriage -- that's demeaning. It's simply none of the government's business whom I marry.

In a way, then, I'm perplexed why some gays are trying so hard to share in that special "privilege" of letting politicians sanction their marriages. For me, the goal is to convince heterosexuals to demand an end to that oppressive and intrusive practice.

Clearly, gay couples have a legitimate complaint. They indeed suffer unjust discrimination. Specifically, the state grants certain benefits only to licensed heterosexual couples. Here is a partial list of those benefits: employee medical coverage, automatic hospital visitation rights, adoption, joint tax-filing, pension benefits, social security benefits, and easy inheritance rules. Of course, libertarians want to do away with some of these things, like income tax filing, and move other items like retirement planning to the voluntary market, which would lessen the political conflict.

However, the question of benefits is separable from the issue of marriage. That is, we could achieve equitable government policies with respect to benefits, without having the state sanction marriage.

Diana Yandell, Associate Director of Boulder Pride, noted her disappointment that some-time progressive Bill Clinton signed the 1996 federal "Defense of Marriage Act" (DOMA). Partly because that Act is on shaky Constitutional grounds, given the "full faith and credit" clause of Article IV, Section 1, some Republicans (like Congresswoman Marilyn Musgrave) are now seeking to enshrine DOMA as a Constitutional amendment. The amendment would define marriage as heterosexual as far as federal rules are concerned and allow states to refuse to recognize gay marriages. Supporters "want to solidify their position and not allow marriage for same-sex couples," Yandell said.

When I explained the plan to get government out of marriage, Yandell said, "I think that's an interesting idea." I hope that's a good start.

The libertarian position on marriage has started to get more attention. Chuck Muth, former head of the Republican Liberty Caucus, summarized the position in an October 12 column in the Denver Post: "The problem isn't keeping gays out of marriage, but keeping government out of it." David Boaz, executive vice president of the Cato Institute and the author of Libertarianism: A Primer, who also happens to be gay, wants to "privatize marriage," or "put gay relationships on the same footing as straight ones, without implying official government sanction." Try a google search of "gay marriage" plus "David Boaz," "Wendy McElroy," or "Deroy Murdock" to read several excellent accounts of this view.

I thought it would be interesting to call up State Senator Jennifer Veiga, who is openly gay, and Representative Dave Schultheis, a supporter of heterosexual marriage, to see if they might both agree on the idea of getting government out of marriage.

Veiga surprised me with a quick, "I would agree." She noted there are hundreds of rights and benefits associated with marriage. She pointed out that in 2000 the Colorado legislature passed a law similar to the federal language. Veiga said, "We need to be able to separate the civil contract from the religious ceremony." She also said Catholic churches (for instance) have the right not to participate in gay marriages.

Schultheis panned the proposal. He said he supports the Constitutional amendment and he opposes getting the government out of marriage. "The state needs strong marriages," he said; there is a "public interest to further marriage." Nor does Schultheis want to extend any sort of benefits to gay partners. He said homosexuality is an "unhealthy relationship for society." He lamented our country's high divorce rates and other family problems, though I pointed out those problems exist within today's system of state-licensed marriages, and I didn't see how repealing the licensing system would make matters worse. Schultheis replied that he doesn't want to do anything to move away from strong state backing of marriage.

I asked Schultheis why he thinks the state shouldn't license people to buy guns or carry them concealed, but the state should license people to get married. He said owning a gun is a Constitutional right, and the "state shouldn't be involved in licensing that." He said his call to license marriage but not gun ownership is consistent, because both policies promote a "more healthy society."

That's the difference between conservatives and libertarians. Conservatives join with left-liberals in sacrificing individual autonomy to "state needs" and "society." Libertarians think both marriage and self-defense are fundamental rights that are none of the business of politicians.

The Colorado Freedom