Reader Comments (4)

Barnabas Palfrey


this is a very specifically American discussion and decision.

For myself,a Brit, I am pleased when gay and lesbian marriage is recognised. Among religious groups, I am impressed by the Quakers in the UK who have agreed to count their Meetings to celebrate the Civil Partnerships of gay couple as Marriages, and to send off certificates to the government just as they would when acting as registrars for heterosexual marriages.

I am more of an Anglican Christian than a Quaker, and I hope that some day there will be gay marriages in Anglican Churches, just as a few imams ratify Muslim gay marriage.

But it is odd to me -- and I am glad we do not do it here -- that this should be passed on a constitutional basis of non-discrimination against *individuals* - when it seems to me that "marriage" (of any sex and gender mix) is not basically a matter of the rights of two individuals.

In the UK, we have the institution of civil partnerships, which extends, as I understand it, all the legal privileges of marriage to same-sex couple who enter into it. In time, the state may well go the whole hog and call these 'marriages' (perhaps rather as at one time women sat the exams at Cambridge but were not awarded honours degrees).

I think the government here was wise to stick in the first instance to an action that had to do with a legal right for individuals to be exclusively associated with each other. The government stuck to its core function, which is not to legislate for cultural meanings. Before long, I expect the government will be able simply to enact in name (no doubt with some squealing from some church-people) what will be already a cultural commonplace. Most civil partners refer to their 'weddings', after all.

So the one thing that I resist in this *ruling*, is the suggestion that the cultural meaning, 'marriage' can or should be decided by reference to the equal rights of individuals. I'm not sure marriage is essentially a matter of the free self-determination of two individuals – such as simply entering into legal contract as individuals and between individuals.

Much more fundamentally, I should say, marriage is about taking one's place in some or other communal relationship wherein one receives a certain regard from one's community at the same time as one commits oneself to nurture that community in return. The gift-exchange involved is therefore not most basically of the order of a contract bearing certain legal consequences for the individuals involved (though of course in our countries,
it is this also -- I believe that for many years English Quakers refused to be married according to the rites of the state, and so lived as married without any proper legal protection.)

I wish the Quakers had included in their recent Yearly Meeting decision on recognising same-sex marriage some reflection on what they thought marriage was -- beyond a badge of honour or declaration by a committed couple to each other. But hopefully the Quakers can sustain a notion of marriage as extending beyond celebrating the self-determination of two individuals towards each other.

So, an odd reason for a decision, in my lights (- though I understand the referendum that overturned the original legislation was a faulty manoeuvre, which side of the judgement seems absolutely secure). I hope we can start elaborating a story about marriage that is more than individualist, to include both same-sex and hetero-sex couples.



Thanks very much for this, as always.

I'm going to be a little bit thick and suggest that this is really a little bit simpler, from the American/liberal point of view:

I'm not sure whether or not the state should be in the business of conferring official status on personal relationships. But as long as it is in that business, and as long as that status entails rights and responsibilities, then the state has to provide it for everyone. In its state--sanctioned/civil aspect, marriage is a civil right. That means it has to be a civil right for everyone. End of story.

Marriage as a religious status - and probably as a cultural phenomenon - is, while perhaps related to, technically outside of, this particular discussion.

Re-reading your post, I see we're in agreement: marriage is more than a civil/legal agreement. But the that bit is all the government is or should be concerned with.

As ever,

P.S. In Andrew Sullivan's book-length argument, Virtually Normal, his two iron-clad requirements for equality are: equal marriage rights, and equal rights to serve in the military. It's a powerful argument from classical liberalism.

P.P.S. I'd be very interested in hearing of any imams who sanction gay marriage - which would be my first time hearing of such a thing - and also what happens to them.


Marriage is different from other fundamental rights. It is a religious ceremony which confers civil rights and duties.

Not that I'm trying to be ecumenical here, but the best solution for gay marriage I've ever read came from a Catholic priest who wrote an editorial advocating the elimination of civil marriage, and instead replacing it with civil unions. Under a civil union, two people (gays, straights, relatives, business associates, etc.) could be bonded together and given specific rights and duties (just like marriage), but the religious institution of marriage would be left rightly to religious organizations to recognize as their morality dictates. That way if two spinsters want to buy a house together, or give each other survivorship rights, they can, if two gay people want the same benefits and duties as a heterosexual couple, they can, and so on....


That's totally fine by me.

So would be the abolition of civil marriage - and its replacement with nothing.

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