Who needs marriage laws anyway?

Last updated 07:00 07/02/2013
Marriage is hard

MARRIAGE: Do we need a licence to get involved?

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Parliamentarians are currently preparing for the thankless task of debating Louisa Wall's Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill. The bill aims to clarify the law, making it clear that same-sex couples may marry in exactly the same way as heterosexual couples. It is already a lively and emotive debate, and will doubtless become more so as parliament gets closer to passing (or not) the legislation.

What puzzles me is: Why is the government even in the business of defining and regulating marriage at all?

A little over three years ago my partner and I decided to get married. It turns out that in order to do so, I had to obtain from the Department of Internal Affairs a marriage licence. It took them three days to make up their mind whether or not they were going to issue me with one.

What was that all about?

I understand that some things need licences. I carry two of them in my wallet. I have a driver licence, which the government requires before I drive a car on the public road. I get that, a car used recklessly or incompetently is a dangerous thing, and the state has a legitimate interest in making sure that people using one don't endanger others. I also have a firearms licence, which the law requires before I'm allowed to possess guns. I get that too, the state should make sure that I'm not a homicidal maniac before allowing me to own a rifle.

But a marriage licence? Really?

It's not as if we were going to do anything differently after getting married. We went about our lives after the wedding in exactly the same way as we had before. All we wanted was a ceremony and a bit of a knees-up with our friends and family that said "hey, we're a serious item and in it for the long haul". Why on earth would I need the permission of the state for that?

Marriage originally evolved as a socially sanctioned framework within which people might shack-up together and have kids. Now, both shacking-up together and having kids each bring some complications into people's lives that there needs to be some rules around. We need to be clear how relationship property is dealt with when a relationship ends, for example. The rights and obligations of anyone involved in bringing up a child need to be well defined.

No doubt there was a time when a well-regulated institution of marriage was a good thing. Over much of history, life has been tough. Food was routinely scarce, health was precarious, life was uncertain and often short. The job of perpetuating the species was absurdly easy to get badly wrong, and hard to get right. Emerging societies each stumbled upon a way that more-or-less worked for them, and then rigidly enforced it. They called it marriage.

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But we don't do that any more. People enter into relationships and have kids outside of state-sanctioned marriage all the time. The rules governing these things are well defined. The social value of a state-controlled and regulated institution of marriage is long gone.

People come together to form relationships for lots of reasons. Sometimes it includes sharing property, sometimes not. Sometimes it involves rearing kids, sometimes not. Sometimes it includes people of opposite sexes, sometimes the same sex. Sometimes it is a sexual relationship, sometimes not. As a society, we understand how to accommodate all these types of relationships, we don't need to pick and choose which ones are okay and which ones aren't.

Sometimes people want - for cultural, religious, or just personal reasons - to call such a relationship a marriage. The government has no business deciding whether or not they can. If they want to call it a marriage, then it's a marriage.

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