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.
Nor is the debate, at least currently, about the civil aspects of marriage: we are moving toward a consensus that same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples ought to enjoy equal civil rights.
The leaders of both major political parties appeared to endorse this position during the 2008 presidential campaign, although only a handful of states have legalized civil unions with material privileges equivalent to those of marriage.
Each of these important aspects of human life, in turn, can exist outside of marriage, and they can even exist all together outside of marriage, as is evident from the fact that many unmarried couples live lives of intimacy, friendship, and mutual responsibility, and have and raise children. Married people get a lot of government benefits that the unmarried usually do not get: favorable treatment in tax, inheritance, and insurance status; immigration rights; rights in adoption and custody; decisional and visitation rights in health care and burial; the spousal privilege exemption when giving testimony in court; and yet others. When people get married, they typically make a statement of love and commitment in front of witnesses.
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Nonetheless, when people ask themselves what the content of marriage is, they typically think of this cluster of things. Most people who get married view that statement as a very important part of their lives.Although some religions urge premarital counseling and refuse to marry people who seem ill-prepared for marriage, the state does not turn such people away.The most casual whim may become a marriage with no impediment but for the time it takes to get a license.Being able to make it, and to make it freely (not under duress) is taken to be definitive of adult human freedom.The statement made by the marrying couple is usually seen as involving an answering statement on the part of society: we declare our love and commitment, and society, in response, recognizes and dignifies that commitment. For many people, a marriage is not complete unless it has been solemnized by the relevant authorities in their religion, according to the rules of the religion.This result has been seen by the same-sex community as deeply degrading.More recently, Iowa and Vermont have legalized same-sex marriage, the former through judicial interpretation of the state constitution, the latter through legislation.To get this privileged treatment under law people do not have to show that they are good people.Convicted felons, divorced parents who fail to pay child support, people with a record of domestic violence or emotional abuse, delinquent taxpayers, drug abusers, rapists, murderers, racists, anti-Semites, other bigots, all can marry if they choose, and indeed are held to have a fundamental constitutional right to do so—so long as they want to marry someone of the opposite sex. All across our country, in every region, every social class, every race and ethnicity, every religion or non-religion, people get married.For many if not most people, moreover, marriage is not a trivial matter.