Throughout history, marriage as an institution, has existed in cultures throughout the world and has been supported through religious doctrine and legal decree. It has been so important to maintaining social order and advancement that it has been a cornerstone of most social systems worldwide and through time.
Marriage, in one form or another, has existed from a time before we organized religions, before we codified laws and before we came together in social settings. Originally, it was a means of a man “staking his claim” of a mate and securing his offspring as his own labor force. As religious doctrine developed, marriage became an important part of all religious belief systems and later the body of laws and regulations made by or adopted by ecclesiastical authority. As civil secular institutions grew and developed and civil law was codified, once again, marriage was established and defined as a cornerstone to civil society. Keep in mind that in most cultures, which were paternalistic in nature, men were established as the head of the family and women were put in a subordinate position. Both religious and civil law have supported and encouraged this arrangement, giving the man the advantage in religious marriage doctrine and civil law. Certainly, there have been exceptions to this in maternal societies, but they are the exception and not the rule.
How we define marriage, however, has changed considerably through the ages. Marriages were generally arranged by families. The groom and the bride had very little say in who they married. This later changed to men choosing a bride, regardless of whether she wanted to marry or not. Through many cultures it was a woman's duty to find a husband “to take care of her” and men were supposed to make sure their blood line was maintained.
As women's rights have developed, primarily through Western culture, women now have a voice in who they marry and generally have an equal stake in the marriage bond. The concept that one would love their mate is a relatively new idea. Romantic attraction now has become the basis of marriage. Even though religious scripture is full of examples of arranged marriages, many orthodox Jewish, Christian, Islamic, and other religions still cling to these beliefs, most religions today view marriage as a “partnership” based on mutual love. Loving one's partner has now become the generally accepted basis of marriage. Children, establishing social order, the establishment of the basic family unit, have all taken a backseat to love.
Today marriage runs on two separate tracks, religious marriage and civil legal marriage. As secular institutions have grown and the rule of law developed, a definition of marriage was required for societal order to be maintained. It was needed to define “who got what” upon the death of a spouse or parent. Lineage, and laws to manage inheritance, were needed to insure social order.
In the past the “church” used baptismal and marriage records to establish lineage, Civil law adopted the legal instrument of a certificate as well. Today one can be married civilly but not be recognized by a religious authority. A marriage conducted by a justice of the peace is NOT recognized by the Catholic church and the bride and groom are considered committing adultery if they are not married in the Church. One can also be married by a religious institution and not petition for civil recognition. Although religious institutions have changed how they define the basis of marriage, love, they still cling to ideas based on religious scripture where love had very little to do with the institution. Today’s debate, though, has little to do with religious interpretation or belief. I would not expect religious institutions to change their beliefs or canon law to accommodate changes in social mores and social evolution. The great controversy today concerns civil law, not religious law. Civil unions are one thing. Religious marriage is another.
Civil law gives married people certain advantages. Civil marriage provides for advantages of tax policy, spousal rights, inheritance and many other legal advantage shared by married people. If the basis of marriage is generally accepted as two people being in love, than we no longer can define marriage on the basis of religious doctrine. Civil law does not even require two people to be in love. All they need is mutual consent to enter the “contract” of marriage. For civil law to cling to a religious definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, it ignores the rights of individuals that define a “bonding” relationship otherwise. In the US, the equal protection clause of the constitution, should protect these “other” belief systems. Religious law should have no bearing on secular civil law. If we had used religious law as a basis of our civil law, we would still be stoning people in the streets, cutting off arms and tongues or “banishing people to the wilderness”. Civil law has grown beyond the confines of religious interpretation and it’s about time our definition of marriage grew beyond the archaic and ancient ideas of the past as well.
In the United States several states have enacted laws allowing for gay marriage. There are several cases coming before the Supreme Court on the question of gay marriage. My guess is that this court, based on 14th amendment reasoning and precedents established like Loving v. Virginia and other precedent based on the 1964 civil rights amendment, will force all the states and the federal government to accept gay marriages and extend all advantage to gay couples afforded by are enjoyed by ALL married people. The solution will not come from legislative bodies, but from The Court.