Two Meanings of Marriage

by Penni L Smith on March 28, 2013

Owls in LoveThe news coverage this week has centered on the arguments before the Supreme Court in two cases concerning gay marriage. I understand the concerns on both sides, and the seemingly intractable division between them. Yet the matter could so easily be cleared up if we recognized that there are really two types of marriage, and we should address them differently.

Certainly marriage is a spiritual issue. How that is seen will vary based on one’s beliefs, but people of all faiths agree that marriage is something unique, a relationship like no other, with spiritual ramifications.

Marriage is also a legal entity. Marriage comes with certain benefits and obligations that are governed by law. Much of this has to do with financial commitment and sharing of assets (and debts), but there are also components such as being seen as the primary relationship in a person’s life. This means, for example, that one’s spouse is the one who would give medical consent or manage assets if the other were incapacitated. This also means being able to refuse to testify against a spouse.

People of faith have an obvious interest in the spiritual aspects of marriage. Government should only be concerned about the legal aspects. If we would separate these two aspects of marriage, resolution is possible.

People should be able to marry one another in a spiritual relationship according to their beliefs. Any group should be able to have their own understanding of what that means. For some, that may mean that people entering into marriage need to adhere to a certain set of beliefs and behaviors, and make certain commitments to each other. Others may not be so strict.

People should also be able to ratify their commitment legally. By entering into a legal marriage–and maybe we call it something else–a person falls under all the benefits and obligations about which government is concerned.

The two types of marriage may have no relation to each other. People could enter into a legal marriage without any spiritual component at all. Similarly, people could make a spiritual commitment to each other according to their beliefs, yet not have to make the relationship a legal commitment (though certainly, faith groups could require that for those who marry).

At that point, the law would only concern legal marriage. If there was no legal commitment, the law would see and treat the parties as single. People might make a spiritual commitment to fidelity, but unless there was a law against that, it wouldn’t be the state’s concern. If a faith group had a rule that if people abandon a marriage, they automatically forfeit custody of their children, the state would not enforce that, as the legal concern is what is best for the child, and the state wouldn’t be governed by the faith group’s desires.

This way, the state could allow marriage between same-sex partners, while spiritual groups could, if they choose, deny it. Similarly, spiritual groups such as some of the Mormon offshoots could recognize commitments to multiple partners, but the state allow only one, and govern according to that rule.

People who say that marriage has always involved partners of the opposite sex are absolutely right. People who say that it is unjust to deny same-sex couples the same benefits and obligations as heterosexual couples are also right. If we would make a clear–and yes, legal–distinction between the legal and spiritual definitions of marriage, the solution would be easy and obvious.

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Ronda March 28, 2013 at 6:25 PM

Perfect argument–my thoughts exactly!!


Susan April 4, 2013 at 3:29 PM

When Don and I were planning our wedding, we wanted to keep spirituality, religion and God out of it. Those had nothing to do with why we were getting married. We got our way, with a justice of the peace presiding over the large group in my parents’ back yard. It was the best wedding I’ve ever been to.

I don’t agree that marriage is a spiritual issue. Actually, it’s not that I don’t agree, it’s that I don’t understand what you mean by spiritual. “Spiritual ramifications.” I don’t get it, Penni.

A friend has a poster on her office bulletin board: “We’ve always done it this way,” inside a white circle with a red diagonal bar slashing through it. An encouragement to think outside the box. Just because society has always done something doesn’t mean (a) it’s right, or (b) that we should continue along the same road.

Thanks for encouraging me to check this out, Penni.



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