In the recent presidential debate, Rep. Ron Paul stated his position on marriage:
[G]et the government out of it. Why doesn’t it go to the church? And why doesn’t it to go to the individuals? I don’t think government should give us a license to get married. It should be in the church.
The fact that a member of Congress could make such a bizarre statement probably shouldn’t surprise me—but it does. In fact, I’m always surprised when otherwise thoughtful and intelligent people—many of whom are merely frustrated by the same-sex marriage debate—make similar claims. The reasons why government can’t get out of the marriage business should be obvious to anyone who has spent more than two minutes thinking about the implications of their suggestion. Those who still don’t get it should read this explanation by political scientist Steven L. Taylor:
Here’s the deal: much of the significance of marriage is very much linked to civil-legal matters in a way that makes it impossible for government to extricate itself from its definition. Marriage is many things that have nothing to do with government such as romance, love, friendship, lifelong companionship, and even sacred bonds. There is little doubt that those things can all be achieved without the government being involved (as is the case with friendship, for example). However, marriage is also about certain mutual legal obligations regarding property, finances, children and whatnot, about which governmental intervention is sometimes necessary to resolve disputes (as is the case with any contractual relationship). Further, marriage diminishes legal complexity in a variety issues (children, death [i.e., funeral arrangements], hospital visitations, medical decisions, etc.). Now, we could utterly remove marriage as a legal institution, but then we would have to replace it with something else, and that something else would almost certainly be more cumbersome in terms of government entanglements that the current system.
To put it as simply as possible: for government to truly get out of the marriage business it would have to stop recognizing the spousal relationship as having special legal standing. This is because to recognize that relationship as having specific legal significances it would need a definition of “marriage” that could be held up to legal scrutiny (to, for example, stop people from arbitrarily claiming whatever privileges might exist for married couples). Such a stand would have to exist whether the government issued the licenses or not. Once the law has to define “marriage” then government is, by definition, in the “marriage business.”