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reed magazine logoSummer 2008
Kent family

Benjamin Kent ’94, Amy Catania ’95, and their children,
Grace and Elijah

It goes on to list the kinds of families that won’t benefit from marriage laws—even once gay marriage comes under the big tent—including senior citizens living together; adult children living with their elderly parents; grandparents raising their children’s children; households with more than two conjugal partners; single-parent households; extended families; single elderly LGBT people or those whose partner has died; queer couples who choose to raise children jointly in multiple households; and close friends and siblings who choose to live together in long-term, committed relationships. doesn’t oppose the gay marriage movement outright, but the discomfort of its signatories is clear: “While we honor those for whom marriage is the most meaningful personal—for some, also a deeply spiritual—choice, we believe that many other kinds of kinship relationships, households, and families must also be accorded recognition.”

Reed political theorist Tamara Metz stakes out a classical liberal position on marriage in her essay “The Future of Marriage and the State: A Proposal,” which summarizes the central argument of her forthcoming book, Uneasy Union: Marriage and the Liberal State (under contract with Princeton University Press). Metz takes the position that by establishing and enforcing marriage laws, the state oversteps its political authority, taking sides in complex cultural and religious debates in which it has no business, and which should be left entirely in the private realm.

Like Fineman, Metz starts from the premise that marriage isn’t a natural category of social organization, or a particularly effective instrument for providing for citizens’ well-being. The U.S. legal system affirmatively establishes marriage, privileging the married couple and their nuclear family above all other forms of family organization and intimate caretaking. It does so by granting the exclusive right to bestow and dissolve marriages to judges, magistrates, and other state designees (including religious officials); allowing only spouses and their children to presumptively share benefits such as pensions and health insurance; and bestowing exclusive rights on the married couple, such as tax discounts, assumed paternity (when a child is born “in wedlock”), and medical power of attorney.

But, she argues, marriage is a lot more than all of these legal and material benefits. It is a complex social institution intended to alter beliefs as much as behavior. It draws its unique powers from cultural resources that lie well beyond the realm of the state. So, Metz says, when the state relies on marriage to achieve its legitimate public welfare goals vis a vis families, it both oversteps its authority and undershoots its potential to do good in society.

When the state privileges the married family, Metz argues, it excludes from its benefits all those families who, for one reason or another, do not or cannot marry. Meanwhile, the state simultaneously assumes a kind of ethical authority for which it is unsuited and which it does not need in order to support families.

Here Metz makes the comparison to religion: when a rabbi confers bar mitzvah status, the effects on beliefs and self-understandings (as well as behaviors) are powerful and pervasive—for members of the Jewish community. The rabbi’s authority is thus ethical. The state’s authority is not; it is, or ought rightly to be, in classical liberal terms—merely political. And, Metz adds, that’s a very good thing: it allows citizens who disagree profoundly on religious and cultural matters (such as marriage) to live in peace together.

“When the state is in the primary role of conferring and regulating marital status,” Metz said in an interview, “it squeezes out other authorities in that realm by virtue of its inordinate material power. If the state got out, this ethical authority with respect to marriage would flourish and blossom.”

Metz sketches out a way forward in her essay. “Disestablishing marriage would mean that . . . marital status would be left to voluntary associations, religious, ethical, and cultural entities that wield ethical authority more effectively and justly than does the state.” And who might that be? Your priest, minister, or rabbi. Your bike club, Masons lodge, or Wiccan coven. Extended family, a handful of friends, or just you and your partner. “Acquiring marital status would be the ticket to the ethical recognition of a community of shared understandings and not to a vast array of legal and material benefits,” she concludes.

And what would critics put in the place of marriage? Metz proposes that the state instead put its stamp on an “intimate care-giving union” or ICGU.

“The purpose of this status would be to recognize and protect intimate care-giving in its various guises,” Metz says. She runs down a litany of possibilities: “polygamous arrangements; elderly sisters who have lived together their entire lives and want some protection for their relationship; gay and straight people living together; two girlfriends who are not having sex with each other but have children who they want to raise together; two families sharing a duplex and cooking meals together. The state should allow them all to have those protections.”

For lawyer Jennifer Pizer of Lambda Legal, who argued Stuart Gaffney and John Lewis’ case before the California Supreme Court, this is all pie in the sky. Worse, it takes progressives down a slippery slope, calling for the abolition of marriage just when gay people are finally getting equal protection under the law.

reed magazine logoSummer 2008