November 10, 2006

Divorcing the law from marriage

Too much valuable time and energy is wasted on trying to keep same-sex couples from getting married. While I think people should be able to marry whomever they choose, this should be a moot discussion when it comes to legal matters. Marriage—however you want to define it—has no place in the law. Why? Because personal matters of religion or romance between individuals have nothing to do with law. New Jersey’s recent decision to give same-sex couples the right to civil unions is certainly a step in the right direction. In fact, civil unions should replace marriages altogether in the eyes of the law. Once you have civil unions, marriage does not contribute anything helpful to society. A civil union can offer people a support system in the eyes of the law, but a “family” serving this purpose obviously need not stem from romance or religion (two qualities marriage often encompasses in addition to what a civil union includes).

If marriage were a personal matter, New York’s ban on same-sex marriage this summer would not even have been possible—it would have been as ridiculous a civil liberties violation as banning people from wearing red shirts. If you want to wear a red shirt, fine. If wearing that red shirt means you won’t be accepted by, say, a certain school community that requires uniforms, you have to decide what matters to you more. The point is, what you decide here is no one’s business but yours. Many religious communities have made marriage unnecessarily complicated—but for those of us who don’t care about any religious community’s views on marriage, none of this matters; those who really want a wedding can throw one after they get their civil union. If a religious community’s view matters to you, fine, adhere to it, but others should never be forced to do the same. The government has no place intervening there.

While it has always been challenging for me to empathize with religious individuals, I think my lack of religious bias allows me to see more clearly the necessity of keeping religion and law separate.

But this civil liberties issue isn’t far from Lady Liberty herself—or, at least, the country that gave her to us. While marriage should be scratched from the law books, the civil union can serve a valuable purpose, and France, of all places, seems to be pretty close to right when it comes to those.

The Pacte Civil de Solidarité (PACS, or civil solidarity pact) offers legal status to unmarried heterosexual and homosexual couples. Before PACS, according to the website of the French Embassy in the US, many “AIDS sufferers were unable to benefit from their partners’ social welfare cover or transfer leases; some homosexuals were rejected by the families of sick or deceased partners, saw their hospital visiting rights curtailed, with many excluded from funeral ceremonies.”

A law like this could only help. Here’s why:

PACS is basically defined in French law as “a contract concluded between two physical persons who have reached the age of majority, of different or the same gender, for the purposes of organizing their life in common.” Further, the law states: “Persons bound to each other by a PACS offer each other ‘mutual and material support.’” It allows for one partner with no social welfare cover to benefit “where appropriate” from the social welfare cover of his or her partner. These are all the benefits a married couple would have in the U.S.—including hospital visitation rights. All you need is a decision to make someone your family—regardless of whether romance is behind it.

This grants anyone from a wedded husband and wife to a gay couple to two siblings, ability to support each other financially and live together to be one and the same in eyes of French law.

If the role of the law is to maintain order and protect basic rights in society, then universally allowed civil unions only seem a fair substitute for the preposterous idea that is “legal marriage.” But we have other ground to cover yet: Church exemptions from taxes are just as illogical and violate the constitution just as much. For now, though, let’s follow France’s lead and scratch marriage out for civil unions.