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Religious Tolerance logo

Introduction to same-sex marriages (SSM) and civil unions. Part 1

Past trends & changes within marriage in the
U.S. and elsewhere, from biblical times to now.
Marriage as a fundamental human right.

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Changes in Marriage from biblical times to now:

An anonymous individual called "Pursuit_of_Knowledge" responded to an article in KSL Broadcasting 1 with the question:

"... Which one of these is 'Traditional Marriage?'

  • The one from Book of Genesis when family values meant multiple wives and concubines?
  • Or the marriages of the Middle Ages when women were traded like cattle and weddings were too bawdy for church?
  • Since this is America, should we preserve marriage as it existed in 1776 when arranged marriages were still commonplace?
  • Or the traditions of 1850 when California became a state and marriage was customarily between one man and one woman or girl of age 11 and up?
  • Or are we really seeking to protect a more modern vision of traditional marriage, say from the 1950s when it was illegal for whites to wed blacks or hispanics?
  • Or the traditional marriage of the late 1960s when couples were routinely excommunicated for marrying outside their faith?
  • Where only 130 years ago did men start to lose their legal right to physically beat or imprison their wives,
  • [Where] ...only in the past 40 years have we established the principle that within a marriage wives and husbands have equal rights in decision-making?
  • Where not until 1979 did the last American state finally repeal its "Head and Master" law, which had given husbands the final say over many aspects of family life?
  • Where not until 1993 did marital rape become a crime in every state, overturning the millennia-old tradition that a wife was obligated to have sex with her husband whenever he demanded it? 2

In his or her posting, "Pursuit_of_Knowledge" did not include group marriages (a.k.a. plural marriages and multi-lateral marriages) between one or more women and one or more men. These were found in ancient Hawaii, some parts of Melanesia, Australia, one part of ancient India, and in science fiction writings. Group marriages exist in North America. However, they keep a low profile and their number is impossible to estimate accurately. 3

In addition to the marriage styles described above which were once routine but are now strange:

bullet In Old Testament times, when a husband died without children, his wife had to join in a levirate sexual relationship with his brother. She could not marry another man until she had produced a child. The paternity of that child would be credited to her former husband. There were quite a few unusual marriage and family types in the Old Testament era in addition to the one man-one woman union.

bullet In the 1830s, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Christ, secretly promoted the concept of polygyny This is one type of polygamy in which one man is married to multiple wives. About 100 faith groups now trace their history back to Smith's original church. By far the largest is The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. They practiced polygyny widely until they officially suspended the practice in 1890. They continued on a limited basis to practice polygyny until the early 20th century when it was finally banned. Some splinter fundamentalist Mormon groups still practice polygyny mainly in Utah and British Columbia, Canada. They continue to experience relatively little government interference. However, a group in Bountiful, BC has triggered a court hearing to determine the constitutionality of a federal law banning polygamy.

bullet As of mid 2011-AUG, same-sex marriages (SSMs), civil unions, and domestic partnerships are available in some jurisdictions of the U.S. Canada, and Mexico -- but not in others.
bullet In those jurisdictions that have made same-sex marriage available, the marriage act was simply modified to allow married couples to be either of the same sex or opposite sex. This was typically done by changing the law that defined marriage as a union of a man and a woman. It was rewritten to define it as a union of two persons. However, same-sex married couples are denied the over 1,100 federal benefits because of the federal DOMA law.

bullet In those U.S. states that have civil unions, same-sex couples are generally able to obtain all of the state rights, protections and and privileges that are given to married couples. However, they cannot call their relationship a marriage; this is often the most important right of all. Also, they are denied the over 1,100 federal benefits and what is perhaps the most important right: to call their relationship a marriage.

bullet In those U.S. states that have domestic partnerships, same-sex couples can register and obtain at least some of the benefits given to married couples. They are still denied the more than 1,100 federal benefits, including the right to call their relationship a marriage.

bullet In those U.S. states that do not have laws allowing same-sex marriages, civil unions or domestic partnerships, same-sex couples are typically treated as "legal strangers" as two persons who just happen to live in the same house or apartment. They and their children have no state or federal protections or benefits.

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Overview of trends towards marriage equality in the U.S.:

There have been four battles for "marriage equality" in the U.S. since the mid 19th century. Each has involved a redefinition of marriage in terms of who was eligible to marry whom:
  • The fight to allow African Americans to marry. During the days of slavery, black American slaves were often prohibited from marrying. This inequality ended at the conclusion of the civil war.

  • The fight to allow deaf couples to marry. Such marriages were banned in some states during the early 20th century and later reinstituted.

  • The fight to allow inter-racial couples to marry. These marriages -- most commonly involving a black and white spouse -- were legalized throughout the U.S. by a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) in 1967 in spite of overwhelming opposition from the public at the time. The decision involved an ironically named legal case: "Loving v. Virginia."

  • The current battles are over domestic partnerships, civil unions and same-sex marriage (SSM). As of the end of 2012 in the U.S.:

Throughout the entire United States, the federal DOMA law denies married same-sex couples about 1,100 federal benefits and obligations that are automatically given to opposite-sex married couples. This law is widely believed to be unconstitutional and has been declared so by a number of federal District Courts and two U.S. Courts of Appeal. It has been appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. A bill is active in Congress to repeal the law. However, it is still being enforced.

Civil unions and domestic partnerships are not called marriages. This is a major difference to loving, committed same-sex couples who seek marital equality and to social and religious conservatives who want to continue to give opposite-sex couples special privileges.

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Marriage has been recognized as a fundamental human right:

The U.S. Supreme Court has declared marriage to be a fundamental right at least twice:

bullet "This Court has long recognized that freedom of personal choice in matters of marriage and family life is one of the liberties protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment." (US Supreme Court: Cleveland Board of Education v. LeFleur, 1974)

bullet "The freedom to marry has long been recognized as one of the vital personal rights essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men." (US Supreme Court: Loving v. Virginia, 1967. This was the ruling that allowed mixed-race marriages throughout the U.S.).

But people are only allowed to marry in most American jurisdictions if their spouse is of the opposite sex. This means that gays, lesbians, and some bisexuals cannot usually marry the person with whom they have developed a committed relationship.

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References used:

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

  1. Josh Furlong, "Congress considers repeal of Defense of Marriage Act," 2011-JUL-21, KSL Broadcasting, Utah, at: http://www.ksl.com/
  2. "Group marriage," Wikipedia, as at 2011-AUG-30, at: http://en.wikipedia.org/

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"SSM" means "same-sex marriage"

Home > Rel. info. > Basic > Marriage > SSM menu > SSM submenu > here

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Copyright © 1998 to 2012 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update and review: 2012-DEC-05

Author: B.A. Robinson
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