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Changes, including re-definitions, of
marriages since before biblical times

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It has often been stated that the basic building block of society is the family. Families are being formed continually. In the Western world, many couples meet, find themselves attracted to each other, decide to date each other exclusively, engage in sexual activity, decide to form a permanent relationship, and move in together, and perhaps marry (not necessarily in that order). In the vast majority of cases, the couples are of opposite genders. However, a small but growing percentage of couples who wish to marry are of the same gender.

Marriage has been continually evolving. It has gone through many changes and redefinitions over the past 15 decades:

bullet Most couples are made up of one woman and one man; some are of the same gender; a relative few are polygamous, either group marriages (any gender combination of more than 2 persons), polygynous (one man, multiple women), or -- very rarely -- polyandrous (one woman, multiple men).

bullet Most couples are of the same race. But it is only since the Civil War that African Americans were allowed to marry anywhere in the U.S.

Other marriages are interracial. They were forbidden in some parts of the U.S. prior to 1967 when the U.S. Supreme Court declared miscegenation laws unconstitutional. Interracial marriages are now legal everywhere in North America; they are increasing in numbers.

bullet Some couples are of the same religion; others are inter-faith. Until recent decades many Christian denominations quoted the biblical passage 2 Corinthians 6:14 which forbids Christians from marrying outside of their faith -- and sometimes marrying outside of their denomination -- and thus being "unequally yoked." Some still do.

bullet Some couples decide to have their own children; others attempt to adopt; others intentionally remain childless; still others are infertile. Some infertile couples seek assistance from fertility clinics to help them conceive via artificial insemination, in-vitro fertilization, etc. Such methods are forbidden by the Roman Catholic Church and some other faith groups.

bullet Some couples prefer to simply live together without ceremony or state license; others wish to stand up in front of friends and family, declare their love and commitment to each other, and be legally married in a secular or religious setting.

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.

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The significance of marriage:

Marriage can have both religious and legal significance. 

bullet Many Christian denominations look upon marriage as being ordained by God, patterned after God's creation of the first couple, Adam and Eve. To some Christians, the relationship between two spouses is considered permanent. It is symbolic of the relationship between Christ and his church.
bullet Other faith groups have a broader definition of marriage: a religiously recognized commitment by a couple to support each other and live together monogamously "'till death do them part" or, if the marriage becomes hopelessly toxic, until they separate and/or divorce.

bulletA growing number of religious organizations and political jurisdictions do not require the spouses to be of opposite genders.
bulletTo most Atheists and Agnostics, a marriage will be entirely secular in nature, without any religious 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.

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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.

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The origins and types of marriage:

Anthropologists have observed that all societies have some form of marriage arrangement or arrangements. Also, most cultures follow one or more religions. It is reasonable to assume that all human cultures, even in pre-historic times, had some form or forms of religiously sanctioned marriage.

There are eight family types described in the Hebrew Scriptures.

In North America, there are currently three main types:

bullet"Living together:" an informal arrangement which may be temporary or permanent.

bullet Common-law marriage: living together with the intent of creating a permanent union.

bullet Legally recognized marriage registered with the government, which brings a full set of benefits, protections, and obligations.

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Who could marry? -- from the 19th century until now:

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:

bulletIn 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.

bullet 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.

bulletAfter 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bullet 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.

bulletWith the legalization of civil unions in Vermont:
bullet Many gays and lesbians in committed relationships have gone on vacation in Vermont, entered into a civil union, returned to their home state, and ask for their unions to be recognized. They requested the same rights, benefits and obligations that married folks have had for centuries. State courts have consistently refused their requests.

bullet The awkward title "civil union" is being replaced in popular usage with "marriage." Rather than say "I entered into a civil union," people will say "I got married." Rather than say "This is my civil unionized partner" people will refer to their partner as wife, husband, spouse or similar term.

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Related essay:

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The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Hyde v. Hyde (1866), L.R. 1 P. & D. 130 [H.L.]
  2. "United States Supreme Court: Case: LOVING V. VIRGINIA," The Multiracial Activist, at:

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Copyright © 1997 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2012-NOV-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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