why does the State define marriage at all?

why does the State define marriage at all? May 29, 2012
image courtesy of GraphJam

I like to call myself a “conservative Muslim liberal” with the word “Muslim” doing double-duty as a noun and an adjective. On religious matters I tend towards orthodoxy, whereas in politics I am more of an activist. This does makes for some interesting intellectual contortions at times, which is why Whitman’s quote about contradictions and multitudes has always resonated with me. For the most part, however, reconciling these identities is intuitive and comes naturally for Muslim Americans of my native-born generation.

But there are some issues that seem to be tailor-made for upsetting the delicate balance between faith and politics — and of these, gay marriage takes the tiara.

I found the outcome of North Carolina’s vote a couple weeks ago to outlaw same-sex civil unions particularly troubling. Same-sex marriages were already illegal in that state; the amendment went a step further to deny any legal benefits of domestic partnership to same-sex couples outright. On the one hand, like other religious Americans, I believe that the concept of marriage is sacred and is divinely defined as between a man and a woman. But in terms of social justice, there is something deeply immoral about denying commonsense legal protections to two persons who have made a sincere and loving commitment to each other.

Here in Wisconsin, we have found a more reasonable compromise — though same-sex marriage is outlawed by the state constitution, domestic partnerships are legal, which means gay couples do have some of the legal protections that traditional marriages enjoy. The discrepancy still is stark, however: According to Wikipedia, domestic partnerships in Wisconsin have 43 rights and protections, versus the 1,138 granted by federal law to legal marriages. As I contemplate the fuzzy boundary between faith and politics, I can’t help but find compromise unsatisfying. I’m confident enough in my own beliefs — and in my own marriage — to be unconcerned about the theoretical threat gay marriage poses to my own traditional union. But I also confess to being leery of the state legitimizing social behavior that runs counter to the values I choose to teach my children.

The real problem is that the debate is about defining marriage rather than recognizing it. There is societal value in recognizing marriage as a civic entity which can and should be accorded certain rights and protections — in other words, “married people exist, and they get X, Y, Z.” The real dispute is in how we define who is married and who isn’t, by saying “two people are married if they are A, B, C.” My belief is that marriage shouldn’t be subject to legal definition at all. It is a private covenant between adults, a personal oath and commitment. Marriage is as much an expression of the self as religion or speech (subject to broad and reasonable limits, such as age and consent). Neither the state nor the federal government, nor even my neighbors for that matter, should have a say in whether I am married or not. Likewise, who am I to tell a gay couple that their loving, monogamous relationship is not a marriage?

Rather than federal law defining marriage and 1,000 rights, perhaps it should only be the broadest 40-plus rights and protections that are guaranteed to “domestic partnerships.” That is the public discussion we should be having, not “defining marriage.”

Last week, President Obama completed his own “evolution” on gay marriage, saying “I’ve just concluded that for me personally it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.” I have come to agree with the president: Same-sex couples have the same right to define their personal marriages as I do. Surprisingly, North Carolina’s constitutional amendment has forced this evolution by demonstrating that mere civil unions aren’t sufficient as a solution — they were targeted in North Carolina and some in Wisconsin would abolish them here as well. What is needed is the protection of federal law for all domestic partnerships.

We need to reclaim the concept of marriage from the government entirely and return it to the privacy of our homes and our communities, where it belongs.

(reprinted from my column at the Wausau Daily Herald in Wausau, WI. Also related: my friend Aamer Jamali’s earlier essay on the gay marriage issue, back in January )

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