Marriage & the Government – how it works

I’ve said this before but I want to say it again. “Marriage” is not a clearly defined term in our society. Until very recently marriage was simply a contract between two families. Even when the church became involved in authorizing and recording ceremonies, marriage was still principally defined by the individual participants’ relationship to their community. Between those who declare their marriage and those who acknowledge it.

In the mid-19th century, most counties didn’t issue marriage licenses or record registrations. Marriage records were preserved by churches (if at all), and recognized by the government through common agreement of a community. You say you’re married – therefore you are. It wasn’t until the 1920s that most U.S. counties began to require marriage licenses, and often did so for the purpose of discouraging or prohibiting interracial marriage. The Civil Rights movement ended that specific discriminatory usage, but because it was legally useful for counties to maintain records of weddings, the government retained its position of oversight.

With that in mind, here’s the U.S. government’s current role in acknowledging a marriage:

1. Two people apply to the county government* for a wedding license;

2. A registered officiant** performs the ceremony;

3. Two unregistered witnesses avow in writing that the ceremony took place;

4. The officiant files the paperwork with the county that issued the license.

As a reverend of the Universal Life Church, I have officiated over 17 weddings in three different states. In all cases the paperwork is worded very much the same: the county’s role is simply to record that a wedding ceremony took place, and to retain that record so that the couple can prove validity.

The foremost conclusion that we can draw from this is that a marriage only exists insofar as it is the ongoing status of two people who have engaged in a wedding ceremony.***

This in turn requires us to define what constitutes a wedding ceremony. There’s a lot of variation, but the modern standard seems to be:

1. the consent of two individuals;

2. under the auspices of a religious or secular authority;

3. before a gathering of the community (two witnesses).

The state currently has no say in the scope and scale of that ceremony, nor whether it occurs for love, for commitment, for children, for taxes, for healthcare, or for material gain.**** By extension, there is no reason why the state should have any say in who should be allowed to get married when both parties are consenting adults.*****

Regardless of your personal opinions on the matter, it is an undeniable fact that same-sex marriage ceremonies happen. No one can legally stop any two individuals from having a wedding ceremony. Moreover, these weddings clearly meet the above requirements and are considered valid by their communities.

With this critical point about community validation in mind, it is important to note that when the government refuses to acknowledge a marriage, it is not simply a denial of the rights of those who seek to have their marriages recognized. It is a denial of our community’s ability to validate the ceremonies that we have witnessed. The state does not have the authority to keep its citizens from acknowledging and respecting the existence of these weddings.

It is our responsibility as citizens to see that the state acknowledges all marriages between individuals; or if it will not, to not passively accept any laws which deny this right.

 

FOOTNOTES

* The county where you apply to get your marriage license need not be the county where the marriage is performed, nor do the applicants need to be residents of that county.

** Officiants may be judges or clergy in-good-standing of a religion. They must be registered at a county office within the state (true of MN; laws vary state-by-state). The officiant need not be a resident of the county where he/she is registered.

*** The one exception being common-law or sui juris marriages, which are recognized in a few jurisdictions (none in Minnesota), and require no public proclamation or officiant, and therefore to be proven rely even more heavily on community acknowledgement and acceptance.

**** However, the INS/Dept of Homeland Security do investigate the validity of marriages involving immigration, and have been known to prosecute cases of “fraudulent” marriage. Proving what constitutes a “valid” marriage continues to give them trouble – and points to a clear double-standard in our society, where immigrants are held to a more strict standard than US citizens.

***** Especially considering that it’s still technically legal in many states for minors to get married with parental permission.

[originally posted on Facebook on Oct 20, 2012 – in regard to the Minnesota Marriage Amendment]

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