An Alabama bill proposes a solution to the debate over the definition of marriage that, while not unique, is at least new to modern audiences: get government out of the way. The bill would end the practice of issuing marriage licenses. Instead of government telling you that you may marry, you would tell the government that you have married.
Some will argue that this bill is simply a response to the Supreme Court’s recent gay marriage ruling in Obergefell v. Hodges. They’re not wrong. It’s hard to think that this bill would even exist without the Obergefell case bringing matters to a head. But so what? Legislatures routinely change laws in response to court decisions. Even if some supporting it are motivated by no more than the bitter taste of sour grapes, that’s hardly an argument that the proposal lacks merit.
Stephanie Coontz, a professor of history at Evergreen State College has pointed out that marriage without the blessing/permission of government is not a new idea. Not until the 16th Century in Europe did the state take an active role in permitting marriages. Prior to that time the vow–not the law–created marriage. Even marriages that the church considered illicit (an exchange of vows outside the church) were still deemed marriages. Coontz also notes that American colonies generally required only that marriages be registered. Until the mid-1800’s American States would still allow mere cohabitation as proof of marriage. Indiana continued to recognize common law marriages well into the 1950s.
People willing to leave public comments on the interwebs tend to say not-so-nice things about others as a rule, and opinion about the Alabama proposal was no different. “Stupid,” “1950s social values” and the inevitable comparison to separate drinking fountains dominated a recent comment section of a local news article. One commenter even said that the bill was an attempt to “dehumanize us.” I assume this meant dehumanize gays, not dehumanize internet comments, which I don’t believe is even possible.
Is it really so surprising that proposed legislation would follow in the wake of such a landmark SCOTUS decision? Courts are not supposed to be active institutions, but reactive ones. Is judicial activism now so commonplace, and legislative complacency so rampant, that when a legislature—the entity actually elected to make changes to the law—engages in activism of its own the populace must cry foul?
*** On a side note, “Judicial activism” as an insult is quickly approaching Red Scare status. At some point after 1990, calling someone a socialist in polite society meant that reasonable people should question the accuser, not the accused. But at least that name-calling could be criticized as one-sided, since a socialist represented a particular political viewpoint, and so his attackers had an opposing view. “Judicial activism” is politically neutral activity in theory (if not in practice), and can apply equally to the substitution of any judicial view for the will of the legislature. But no matter. Like many perfectly accurate phrases before it, it’s sure to be deemed an antiquated, unfashionable dog whistle signaling some evil and unspoken larger meaning–though deciphering the meaning always seems to need a Rosetta Stone of political correctness. Its detractors will be sure to replace it with a slur far a more gentile, if less lucid. I, for one, will lament its complete unavailability at some point in the near future. So long, “Judicial activism,” we hardly knew ye.***
So who are the winners and losers if States start getting out of the marriage business entirely?
For some conservatives, a more passive role for the state may prevent them from choosing between violating their consciences and keeping government jobs. (Though if former IRS chief Lois Learner’s actions are any indication, righties aren’t much welcome as civil servants anyway). For some liberals, the proposal would give them the freedom they seek, and then some. Not only would any two people be allowed to marry, it would be nearly impossible for the state to regulate how the marriage contract is entered into or who solemnizes it. And despite what an hour of MSNBC or FOX News would suggest, I suspect most gay couples aren’t really interested in using their wedding ceremony as political theater—knowing in their sunset years they will fondly think back on the day they tied the knot, expressed their commitment, and made that redneck probate clerk the subject of some serious HuffPo clickbait. No, for most people, it doesn’t work like that. Non-deranged folks want to marry surrounded by people happy for them, not someone resentful because the bronze bust representing the enduring legacy of Justice Kennedy needed polishing. (Just kidding! There’s no bust. It’s a life-sized Ronaldo-esque statue and on the first Monday each October, it is appeased with sacrifices of clerks from middling law schools.) It’s not sacrilege or lunacy for honest people on all sides to seriously consider removing the appendix of licensing marriages from the corpus of government. What does anyone have to lose?
The casual observer might assume that the Supreme Court’s decision ended the issue, and any further legislation is unhealthy because it keeps us fighting. The Obergefell decision does seem, on its face, to require states provide marriage licenses. However, the Court did not seem to contemplate a State not giving marriage licenses to anybody, but the Due Process implications of providing licenses to some citizens and not others.
Besides, the issue wasn’t even over when it was over. Despite the canard that plural marriages (polygamy) had no logical correlation to the gay marriage issue, such a debate is coming. Chief Justice Roberts anticipated as much in his dissent:
It is striking how much of the majority’s reasoning would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage. If “[t]here is dignity in the bond between two men or two women who seek to marry and in their autonomy to make such profound choices,” . . . why would there be any less dignity in the bond between three people who, in exercising their autonomy, seek to make the profound choice to marry?
In fact, the other shoe has already dropped. Less than a month after Obergefell, a Montana man, Nathan Collier, already voiced his intent to sue if he is denied a marriage license to marry a second wife, a contest he considers his own fight for “marriage equality.” More plural marriage proponents are sure to follow. USA Today recently cited a 2012 survey of 4,000 polyamorous individuals, and 66% reported being open to plural marriage. In the not-too-distant future, a trial judge with a polygamous marriage license application in one hand and Obergefell in the other may have only two choices: invalidate the state’s unconstitutional exclusion of plural marriage folks from marriage licensing requirements, or become . . . a judicial activist. (McCarthyism!)
But there are factions on both sides of the issue that won’t tolerate States bowing out of the marriage license game. Some gay marriage advocates won’t like this at all because it’s not freedom that they’re after. It’s state-sanctioned acceptance. To them, it’s not enough that their relationships merely be allowed. They must be approved. Like the bratty teenager who refuses to simply raid the liquor cabinet the weekend her parents are away, her self-worth demands she badger them with sophomoric rationalizations about why no sane society would restrict a sixteen year-old from downing Mad Dog 20/20 while Mom enjoys her after-dinner sherry. Dad eventually gives in, though more from battle fatigue than persuasion. Her victory parade is complete when she boasts to her friends that she convinced her parents to finally see the righteousness of her cause.
Likewise, some gay marriage opponents will also oppose the new proposal. They remain committed to believing that official legal rejection of gay marriage is the only acceptable answer, however diminishing its chances. If the state licensing requirement disappears entirely, the clock will have run out on their cause, and the scoreboard’s tally is not in their favor.
For these loudest voices in the echo chamber, social reformation must trump personal freedom, for social reform cannot be a private affair. For them, the Alabama bill must be opposed. Angered at the prospect of winning without continuing the fight, (or losing without a rematch) their identity depends on dragging their opponent back onto the field for humiliation. No, this proposal just won’t do. The contest for marriage equality cannot be won by forfeit.
Finally, to libertarians, this may be a panacea. Imagine what society could do if government could just get out of the business of moralizing and back to legalizing weed. Wait–on second thought, forget libertarians. Maybe we should let the adults continue the conversation.