Evolving Thoughts

I have often felt disgusted by the fact that homosexual partners can be excluded from sharing their SO’s last minutes because they “aren’t” family, and are unable to inherit, and all the other legal benefits that come along with marriage (here in Australia, but also elsewhere). And I thought, for a while, that civil unions was the solution. But as the conservative Christian opposition make perfectly clear, marriage is their domain and invention and nobody else’s. So I suggest the following modest solution – let them have it.

Instead, recognise that adult human beings are entitled to make whatever exclusive relationships they like, whether it is based on sex or just friendship. So let anyone, in or out of marriage, enter into an Exclusive Civil Partnership, irrespective of sex, gender or fashion sense.

And what is more, remove these rights from marriage contracts. If you want to have a spouse who can make medical decisions on your behalf or inherit your wealth, take out an ECP when you sign your marriage certificate. Delegalise marriage altogether. Make it a religious or social ceremony. There’s no justification for making a marriage between two people a legal contract, so make the contract separate and then old best mates who share a house and a fishing boat can sign an ECP, even if they’re straight, just as much as old lovers. You need not even sign an ECP when you marry. You could do it much later – think of the relief that would give the Family Court! Most marriages would dissolve before exclusive partnership rights were invoked.

Parental rights would be protected under general rules for parental responsibilities. We would, as a nation, recognise marriages of the old sort as equivalent to ECPs in Australia. And we could expect marriage+ECP to be recognised in other countries in the old way. But surely this makes a social ceremony, which varies from ethnic group, religion and tradition, into a proper rite of that ethny. And it makes the civil side of the contract a matter for legal control, without any kind of discrimination against race, sex, or preferred orientation.

How about it?


  1. #1 coturnix
    October 26, 2006

    That is a position I held about 3 years ago (you can check the earliest days of my old blog, or this post for links to them).

    Since then, I have read several books about the history of the insitution of marriage and realized that there is no need to let the fundies decide how marriage is defined and who has the right to it. What they are pushing as “traditional” or “biblical” is at most an 80 years old notion of marriage. The institution has evolved over time and had many shapes at various times in history in various places on this planet. It can keep adapting to the new world if we let it, i.e., if we do not let the mysoginists define it for us.

    So now I fully support gay marriage.

  2. #2 Christopher Gwyn
    October 26, 2006

    Being human, and therefore mentally flexible, I agree with both yourself and Coturnix. Either approach would be fine with me.

    30 years ago I thought the idea of ‘gay marriage’ was nonsensical, then later I thought it wasn’t really necessary, then I thought that ‘Civil partnerships’ were a ‘practical’ approach. Now I really do not care as long as people are treated with dignity and respect regardless of their sexual orientation or domestic arrangements. If folks call a serious relationship ‘marriage’, fine. If ‘marriage’ is a symbolic variation of a legally supported equal partnership, fine. So long as people are not disrespected or significantly inconvenienced because their relationship doesn’t fit someone else’s definition or stereotype I’m fine with whatever terms people use.

  3. #3 david1947
    October 26, 2006

    The NJ ruling today requires the state legislature to figure out how to ensure that all couples are treated equally without regard to their gender, or even whether they have sex together or how. I like this suggestion, now there’s a place to see if it can be made to work.

  4. #4 Gabe
    October 26, 2006

    I’m with JW on this one. Seperation of church and state. Marriage is a religous affair. ECP are a legal/state concern. Is it really so hard to split the two up. I’m not sure I want anything to do with “marriage” any more anyway, but I could tolerate some tax breaks. :)

  5. #5 John Wilkins
    October 26, 2006

    For the record, I’d like to state that this is not motivated by my recent (amicable) separation and soon-to-be divorce, OK?

  6. #6 Bruce
    October 26, 2006

    Bingo. This is exactly what I suggest in my rantings about the NJ Supreme Court decision as well. Basically, we need to separate the “civil” (or legal) and “religious” aspects of marriage. Let the State have jurisdiction over civil marriage (call it civil unions, civil partnerships or whatever), which will be available to all, and let the religious partake in whatever ceremonies they need to fullfill in order to legitimize their relationship in the eyes of their god. Couples can choose to do neither, both or just one, but the only one that will grant you the legal benefits of being “married” will be the civil union.

    Everyone wins because we all are granted the same rights under the law and religion is free from the tyranny of the state.

  7. #7 Charlie
    October 26, 2006

    As someone who was married in Australia recently (in a civil ceremony, with a gay male celebrant who had some pretty strong views on the situation) I’ve had experience with the ridiculousness of marriage law. We were compelled to use the words “husband” and “wife” instead of “partner-in-marriage”, as that might “open the door to gay marriage”, thanks Mr Ruddock. What’s even more ridiculous is that we had to get married at all – apparently our 5 year relationship was not enough for the immigration department thanks to a couple of periods of physical separation. Still, it got done…

    I don’t see the need for a distinction between “marriage” and “civil union” particularly, but if “civil union” is a step closer to true equal rights for all committed couples (um… will the polygamy/polyandry types be next? guess so) then so be it.

  8. #8 Silmarillion
    October 26, 2006

    I’m actually grateful that Australia recognises my “spouse” at all – that means he can come to Australia and work without going through the hassles that I have in Ireland where they have no such arrangement. We are probably never going to get “married” because we’re both atheists and think it’s a pretty stupid idea to get married for the tax breaks. So where do I sign up for your ECP? 😉

  9. #9 bob koepp
    October 26, 2006

    Right on John! What sorts of relationships consenting adults enter into is nobody else’s business, so long as they aren’t imposing on the those around them. The idea that basic legal rights, privileges and protections might depend on one’s living arrangements is obscene. My only qualm about John’s (and others’) comments is that you seem still to be privileging duets over trips, quads, quints, etc.

  10. #10 Steve Watson
    October 26, 2006

    I’ve never really understood the fundamentalist objection to gay marriage (other than the obvious prejudices and theocratic presumptions). When I got married (1980) I was a fundamentalist, but it was obvious to me with just a little thought that there were two distinct things going on that day: the legal contract administered by the provincial government; and the spiritual covenant (or whatever you want to call it), made before God and “administered” by our consciences and the community of faith. (The fact that the minister gets to do the paperwork for the former is merely a convenience to the happy couple, who usually have more than enough to do that week).

    Once you understand that that distinction exists, the religious objection to same-sex civil unions (under whatever name) is seen to be void — and continued objections can only be attributed to the presumption that government policy must uphold their value system.

  11. #11 Lynn Fancher
    October 26, 2006

    Marriage is *not* a religious institution. It’s a *state* institution.

    You are not married by a church, no matter how much pomp and ceremony (and money) is expended on that hour or so of froufrou. After all the flowers and pontification, you *still* have to go into the back room and sign the papers which actually constitute your official marriage–the ones that go to the state.

    You can get officially married with absolutely no church involvement. You can’t get officially married without *state* involvement.

    A big problem here is that, as in so many other situations, we’ve allowed ourselves to cede “ownership” of marriage to our religious institutions, when all they really have anything to do with is the window dressing.


  12. #12 jackd
    October 26, 2006

    Bob Koepp, you’re correct that the discussion of gay marriage does mostly ignore arrangements between three or more people. As far as I’m aware, that’s because some of the basic civil privileges of marriage don’t translate. If I marry two people, which is my next of kin? Which has the primary right to make financial, legal, or medical decisions on my behalf? What defines my obligations to each of them and vice-versa? What happens when someone wants out? Worse yet, what happens when someone wants to throw someone else out? There are a zillion laws and precedents that establish what happens between two married people, and even then it can be a real mess. Multiple marriage just doesn’t have the support to make the massive legal system changes that would be needed to recognize it. (And yes, I’m at least vaguely aware that there are countries where such marriages – typically Muslim – are recognized and the laws can handle it).

  13. #13 Ian H Spedding FCD
    October 26, 2006

    Sounds to me like the perfect solution. Which is why the fundies will probably hate it. It would be a further diminution of the role of religion in society.

    As for divorce, it’s not so bad as long as it’s reasonable and amicable. Luckily, in my case, though, there were no kids involved – just a couple of cats who stayed with my ex because I thought it would be unfair to uproot them.

  14. #14 Joe
    October 27, 2006

    This is my standard response to the claim that marriage is a religious institution: OK, we’ll make it legally meaningless then and it’s all yours.

    Of course, that’s not actually what I support doing, but it does annoy them.

  15. #15 Theo Bromine
    October 27, 2006

    The question I keep asking is: Why are there all sorts of tax, financial, and legal ramifications associated with who a person has sex with? (Or, more accurately: Who they *say* they have sex with.) Legal recognition of ECP would fix that.

  16. #16 Mike Haubrich
    October 29, 2006

    Having been involved in two marriages and two divorces (one amicable, the other decidedly not so) I have come to the conclusion that churches really have no place in determining family law. They can counsel and help all that they want, but when issues become cloudy, what are needed are dispassionate persons who can look at the facs in helping dissolve a union.

    I like the idea of a separately defined union for adult couples administered by the state and religions can define marriage in whatever way they choose. The current issues being led by the religious irritate me because they are defined by their religious prejudices, prejudices which have nothing to do with my own beliefs.

    A dispassionate means to deal with very passionate issues is the only fair way to determine issues of human partnership.

  17. #17 William the Coroner
    November 3, 2006

    Not a bad little idea. The only stumbling block, of course, is those who believe that the political health of a nation is tied to the “righteousness” of its members. Yes, I know, separation of church and state and all that, but there are still folks out there who don’t buy in. Their beliefs, is that THEIR salvation is dependent on OTHERs behaviour is the biggest headache…

  18. #18 Jérôme ^
    November 5, 2008

    That’s the way it works here in France (except the ECP is called PACS, Pacte Civil de Solidarité, and a marriage automatically supersedes it, while giving almost no extra right; but then, marriage here has nothing to do with church whatsoever). And it works quite well: PACS is open to both gay and straight couples (I PACSed my SO just three weks ago to the minute), the only condition being the exclusion of consanguinity; you don’t even have to be a couple to make it (they won’t check you’re actually consummating it!), and its numbers are soaring (it could probably overtake marriage in a few years).

  19. #19 Ian H Spedding FCD
    November 5, 2008

    It is shameful that these measures are inspired by some perverted notion of what the Christian faith. It is religious bigotry and discrimination pure and simple and should have no place in an open and tolerant society.

    You have my vote, for what it’s worth.

  20. #20 Glendon Mellow
    November 5, 2008

    Speaking as a married Canadian, gay marriage has wreaked no havoc in our society, and we’ve had it for years. My wife and I got married by a Unitarian officiant so that the gay couples at our wedding would feel more comfortable.

    No one’s elderly relatives (many Catholic) made a twitter when anyone danced close with one another, gay, straight or transgendered.

    I agree with Coturnix’s response when you originally posted this. Marriage is what it is, and its definition changes. Why should secular folks have a new definition? Why not the religious folks coming up with their own name for it if they want love-segregation so bad?

  21. #21 Allen Hazen
    November 5, 2008

    Without having spent MUCH time thinking about it… I think I like that idea. Separate the legal and religious aspects of marriage, let the word “marriage” go with the religious aspect, separate church and state….

    When I was an undergraduate, I did one semester of anthropology. One topic (outside the lecturer’s specialty, I had a feeling– he seemed to be covering it out of a sense of obligation) was the search for a “cross-culturally valid definition of marriage.” Sort of like Gettierology, with the added constraint that counterexamples had to involve real cultures… though the arrangements practiced by one minor caste in India for a couple of generations during which the caste’s overall role in society was undergoing radical change were deemed real enough to knock out a proposal. State-of-the-art definition at the time was that marriage was an institution involving at least one woman such that children born to that woman in accordance with the rules of the institution were considered “legitimate”: note the order of definition, that the notion of “marriage” presupposes that of “legitimacy”! … When the snippy philosophy major approached the lecturer after class (the words “cluster concept” on his lips), the lecturer admitted that anthropology might be in need of some philosophers to help clarify things….

  22. #22 John S. Wilkins
    November 5, 2008

    I am surprised that a cultural anthropologist would even think there was a cross cultural notion to be defined.

    Some days I too think scientists need remedial logic and a good dose of Wittgenstein. When can we expect your paper, Allen?

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