Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Marriage Molehill

Alas, we expect crazy attempts to be provocative from Alan Dershowitz. Just recently though Gene Robinson figuratively slid into bed with him.

The manufactured issue is one that should have died amid laughter and disdain. However, with more such marginal showmen talking it up, we may find this minor distraction revisiting the same-sex marriage drives and debates.

This time, these tired old men are wheezing about as they put it "getting the state out of the marriage business." In reality, what Dershowitz propose is giving the authority of government for clean and clear regulation of civil marriage to a grab bag of clerics. This shows both a profound ignorance of the nature of marriage in Western culture and an eagerness to vastly complicate a social mechanism that's worked just fine from colonial times.

Dershowitz is quite the dramatist and an excellent self-promoter. He snags talk show appearances and gets his legal think pieces published readily. Good on him. Bishop Robinson is gutsy and good for the GLBT movements by speaking out for gay rights and marriage equality. Yet, he also does not need any self-esteem classes. Unfortunately, the many in the media and public who aren't paying attention will lump these ideas together.

The law professor loves his tiny idea about making people go through religious institutions to marry in the U.S. He has been talking it up for years, as in this paper from 2004. It's a bone he should have chewed on and buried long ago.

The plain facts include that despite such religious sorts as Alan and Gene (and the fundy anti-marriage equality groupies), clerics perform religious rituals of union only for marriage. If they legally marry anyone, they do it through sleight of hand — they sign the state marriage license after the church rite. It remains the state that authorizes who meets the legal requirements of marriage, keeps the records for reference and proof, and is the source of authority at divorce or child custody times.

Ceding those responsibilities to imams, ministers, priests, rabbis and others is cute but only cute. Otherwise:
  • It is unworkable logistically with no central source for verification by anyone needing it.
  • It practically forces the unchurched majority into some religious ritual when apparently half or more of couples have civil ceremonies only.
  • It thoroughly muddies who can wed and divorce.
Robinson has a moderately different take from Dershowitz. He proposes to let the SSM issue focus on civil rights instead of religion. Hence, he proposes removing the solemnization authority from clerics. Many religious figures believe they truly marry people legally when they are only one of many groups authoirzed to solemnize unions and sign the papers. Robinson seems to conflate the ritual and civil event, as so many anti-SSM types do on the other side.

If you pardon the expression, honest to God, this is not difficult. People marry under the rules and authority of the government. Only if they choose to also have a religious ceremony, they arrange for that ritual. Generally, the cleric can serve as a one-stop shop by doing both proximately.

You'd think Dershowitz would get the legal aspect. He seems so pleased with the little idea that is his that he would like to seriously complicate this process that millions of living Americans have navigated quite easily.

As simplemindedly pleasing as it might be to defuse SSM debates by letting the religious sorts have new power here, it wouldn't work at all well. This is a teratological growth that needs a quick and deep burial.
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