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The keys to the kingdom of the married might have been held only by private citizens—religious bodies and their leaders, families, other parts of civil society.So it has been in many societies throughout history.It is a key to the pursuit of happiness, something people aspire to—and keep aspiring to, again and again, even when their experience has been far from happy.
But marriage, it soon becomes evident, is no single thing. The institution of marriage houses and supports several distinct aspects of human life: sexual relations, friendship and companionship, love, conversation, procreation and child-rearing, mutual responsibility. (We have always granted marriage licenses to sterile people, people too old to have children, irresponsible people, and people incapable of love and friendship.
Impotence, lack of interest in sex, and refusal to allow intercourse may count as grounds for divorce, but they don’t preclude marriage.) Marriages can exist even in cases where none of these is present, though such marriages are probably unhappy.
Government plays a key role in all three aspects of marriage. It seems, at least, to operate as an agent of recognition or the granting of dignity. Clergy are always among those entitled to perform legally binding marriages.
Religions may refuse to marry people who are eligible for state marriage and they may also agree to marry people who are ineligible for state marriage.
In the United States, however, as in most modern nations, government holds those keys.
Even if people have been married by their church or religious group, they are not married in the sense that really counts for social and political purposes unless they have been granted a marriage license by the state.
Analyzing this issue will help us understand what is happening in our country, and where we might go from here.
Before we approach the issue of same-sex marriage, we must define marriage.
Given all this, it seems odd to suggest that in marrying people the state affirmatively expresses its approval or confers dignity.
There is indeed something odd about the mixture of casualness and solemnity with which the state behaves as a marrying agent.