I, on the other hand, have spent the last few months deep in Minnesota Atheists’ work on getting marriage law changed so that atheist and humanist celebrants don’t have to declare themselves religious or be recognized by organizations that identify as religious in order to have the state recognize the ceremonies they perform as legal marriages. This means I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people who perform nonreligious ceremonies and to people who have been married in nonreligious ceremonies about why these ceremonies are important to people. I’ve spent somewhat less time talking to legislators about the state’s concerns with the changes we’re asking for.
It also means I’ve spent a bunch of time answering questions about why we’re involved in the issue at all. There are two that are incredibly common in various forms. Why should we take an interest in marriage? Why are we supporting the idea that the state should take an interest in marriage? I’d like to address both of these questions. I’ll split them into separate posts, because they are very separate issues.
In Part 1 of this, I addressed marriage as a ceremony, a ritual that signals a commitment and a combining of families. Now it’s time to look at the state’s interest in marriage, because it does have a legitimate one.
As much as marriage is sold to us these days as an event built around romance, it is and long has been also a contractual matter. Finances typically mingle, both in terms of property and obligation. Short-term benefits to one partner may be put on hold for the long-term benefit of both. Interests in each other’s welfare are created by financial, labor, and emotional entanglements that mean that what happens to one spouse intimately affects the other. (This is less true in socialist states, where the well-being of every individual is guaranteed to some extent. Unsurprisingly, people in those states appear to be drifting away from marriage.)
Sometimes these issues are simple. Spouses sort things out between themselves and carry on in harmony. Sometimes they don’t. Spouses interests compete or conflict with the interests of other family members. Marriages split up and former spouses don’t agree on what belongs to whom, which obligations to each other still exist, and whether their individual investments in the household should be paid back in some way.
When these things happen, family issues become state issues. Courts are asked to decide questions based on contracts that were never written out and signed, but exist solely in the common practices and expectations of the culture, just as they are asked to decide questions based on more formal contracts. The alternative is chaos, increased poverty, and often violence–or the requirement to sign rafts of contracts that would require much higher fees than the cost of a marriage license.
States recognize marriage because we require them to mediate when things go badly. They register marriages because our need gives them an interest in having clear definitions on what does and does not count as a marriage. This also ties into the reason that states legitimately have an interest in recognizing marriages performed by clergy.
The best illustration of that last interest involves a situation that occurred here in Minnesota, starting a couple of decades ago. The Twin Cities, and Saint Paul in particular, are home to the second largest population of Hmong immigrants in the U.S. This presented a serious problem when the marriages practiced in the Hmong community weren’t legal under Minnesota law. People who thought they were legally married after going through the ceremony were filing joint tax returns and other legal papers declaring themselves to be spouses when, for Minnesota’s purposes, they weren’t.
This isn’t just a question of language barriers. A traditional Hmong wedding involves elopement or kidnapping (real or ritual), days of negotiations between families, feasting, and payment of a bride price. Though those elements have changed over time and with contact with other cultures, in general, if you go through a Hmong wedding ritual, you know you’re married–even when you aren’t according to the state.
Over the course of fifteen years, legislators grappled with this problem. The mej koob who negotiated the marriages were neither clergy nor agents of the state. Nor did they want to be responsible for upholding the state’s marriage laws, particularly regarding the age of the parties to be married. Some in the community agreed that women married young shouldn’t be legally bound to their spouses. At least one of the proposed bills was roundly condemned as stereotyping and culturally insensitive.
Eventually that issue seems to have worked itself out through community education and a provision that exists in Minnesota law that says a couple who in good faith believe themselves to have been married legally are married legally. The issue hasn’t arisen with the Somali immigration that followed the Hmong immigration, because the Somali people who settled here are overwhelmingly Muslim and their marriages are explicitly recognized under Minnesota law. Still, it could happen again with another wave of immigration from somewhere else where marriage is not a function of the religious community but a community organized on other lines, like Hmong marriages.
This is, of course, also an issue now for the growing atheist and secular humanist communities in Minnesota. As the law currently stands, we have no recourse for having marriages performed within our communities recognized as legal marriages by the state. We can and do recognize individuals with the skills and respect within our communities to perform the ceremonial aspects of a wedding. However, unless these people are already agents of the state or are willing to declare themselves allied with a religious organization–even one as nominally religious as the Universal Life Church or the religious humanists–the state will not recognize the marriages performed within our communities as legal marriages.
We can have the ceremony. We cannot have the legitimacy in the eyes of the state and its courts unless we change the law. Until that happens, our communities are being treated unequally by the state. We’re working to change that situation.