Governments allow some couples to marry and deny marriage to other couples. In the U.S. it is up to the state to define whom may marry. In Canada, it is determined for the entire country by federal legislation.
The significance of marriage:
Marriage can have both religious and legal significance.
In many countries in Europe and elsewhere, a couple goes to their city hall to have their relationship recognized as a marriage by the government. They may then elect to follow this up with a religious marriage ceremony in a church, mosque, synagogue, etc. In North America, and elsewhere, the couple may elect to bypass a religious ceremony and have their marriage solemnized by a marriage commissioner or judge in a completely civil ceremony.
A growing percentage -- almost a majority -- of couples are deciding to have their marriage ceremony performed outside of a church, mosque, synagogue, temple, etc.
Types of unions:
The vast majority of couples form opposite-sex marriages. Religious and social conservatives call them "traditional marriages." A minority form what are often called "homosexual marriages," or "gay marriages." We recommend that the term "same-sex families" and "same-sex marriage" be used instead, because some male-male and female-female marriages involve two bisexuals or a bisexual and a homosexual.
Marriage brings with it many benefits. Hundreds of these are offered by individual states. In 1997-FEB the U.S. Government issued a list of over 1,000 laws giving special federal rights, privileges and responsibilities to opposite-sex married couples. Because of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) Gay and lesbian committed couples are excluded from these federal the benefits and protections that they would otherwise bring to themselves and their children. However, DOMA law has been found by a number of federal courts to violate the U.S. Constitutional and is currently under appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Only opposite-sex couples can legally marry in most of the world's political jurisdictions. However, a number of jurisdictions have enlarged their definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. Holland was the first. Belgium, Canada, the District of Columbia and a few states in the U.S., Spain, South Africa etc. followed. Other states in the U.S. have created civil unions for same-sex couples. These are arrangements equivalent to marriage but lack the name "marriage." Couples typically receive the same -- or almost the same -- state benefits as do married couples. However, because of the DOMA law, they receive none of the federal benefits at this time.
|"Living together:" an informal arrangement which may be temporary or
|Common-law marriage: living together with the intent of creating a
|Legally recognized marriage registered with the government, which brings a full set of benefits, protections, and obligations.|
The 1866 Hyde decision in England included a definition of marriage in a judge's ruling, which has been frequently cited since:
"What, then, is the nature of this institution [marriage] as understood in Christendom? Its incidents vary in different countries, but what are its essential elements and invariable features? If it be of common acceptance and existence, it must have some pervading identity and universal basis. I conceive that marriage, as understood in Christendom, may for this purpose be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others." 1
In the United States, the meaning of "marriage" has been in a continual state of flux:
|In the early part of the 19th century, marriage was generally considered a legally sanctified contract of
mutual support between two consenting non-African-American adults of opposite gender.
African-Americans were prohibited from marrying in many states.|
|Later in that century, in the territory that was to become the state of Utah, polygyny was legalized;
marriage there became a legally sanctified contract of mutual support between a man and one or more
women, all being non-African-American consenting adults. During 1890, a few years before Utah became a
state, the earlier definition was reinstated, restricting marriage to one woman
and one man. Polygyny still exists in Utah and surrounding states among fundamentalist Mormon denominations where it is not aggressively prosecuted.|
|After the Civil War and over the objections of many conservative folks, African-Americans were permitted to
marry. A marriage then became more inclusive: a contract between two consenting adults of
the same race and of opposite gender.|
|In 1967, again over the objections of about 70% of the population at the time, mixed-race
couples were permitted to marry. The U.S. Supreme Court decided on JUN-12 of
that year that all 16 remaining state miscegenation laws which prohibited interracial
marriage were unconstitutional. 2
Ironically, the court case was called "Loving v. Virginia." A marriage then became even more inclusive: a contract
between any two consenting adults of opposite gender who had exceeded a lower age limit and were not too closely related.|
|For a few hours in 1996-DEC, in the state of Hawaii -- over the objections of
still another generation of Americans -- same-sex couples were theoretically
permitted to marry. Unfortunately for the gay and lesbian couples who wished to get married,
the state refused to issue them marriage licenses. This brief window was closed
by a court injunction obtained by the state. For a brief interval, a marriage
had theoretically became even more inclusive:
a contract of mutual support between two loving, committed, consenting adults of any race and gender combination.|
|Starting on 2000-JUL-01, civil unions became available in Vermont. Committed
couples were able to go to their local town clerk, obtain a license, and have
their relationship solemnized in a church of their choice (or in a civil
ceremony). Committed opposite-sex couples in the state can marry, as always; same-sex couples
could obtain a civil union. Both give the spouses the same state rights, benefits and
obligations; just the legal name is different. If they separate, they may go
to state courts to obtain a divorce.|
|With the legalization of civil unions in
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
Copyright © 1997 to 2012 by
Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-NOV-12
Author: B.A. Robinson
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