While marriage reform is moving forward in many countries (for example, to extend access to same-sex couples), many prominent legal and political theorists ”” such as Cass Sunstein, Richard Thaler, Martha Fineman, Tamara Metz, Lisa Duggan, Andrew March, and Brook Sadler (to name only some of those who have put their views in writing) ”” are proposing that the institution of marriage be privatized. More specifically, they propose that we eliminate the term “marriage” from our civil laws and policies, and replace it with a more neutral term, such as “civil union” or “domestic partnership.” The state would then recognize and regulate civil unions rather than civil marriage, and people would exchange marriage-like rights and duties by becoming “civilly united.” Some private organizations, such as religious institutions, might still perform and solemnize marriages among their congregants, but these marriages would have no official state recognition.
The primary argument for this change of policy is that the state allegedly has no business regulating marriage, which is a complex cultural and religious practice. However, the state does have an interest in promoting private caregiving within families ”” the care of children, elderly parents and sick or disabled relatives. According to advocates for marriage privatization, the state can better pursue its interest in promoting nongovernmental forms of caregiving by establishing and regulating civil unions for all who qualify, and steering clear of defining, interfering with or regulating “marriage….”
Unfortunately, this proposal has some serious problems. First, “privatizing” marriage will not cause it to disappear ”” it will just leave it to be regulated by private institutions, especially religious and ethnic ones. For many centuries, marriage has been the primary mechanism by which people who are not related “by blood” become relatives, and it is unclear that civil unions will acquire this social power. Many families will then be structured and governed primarily by private marriage customs and practices now freed of state regulation.
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