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Harrop: Take government out of marriage business

Published: Monday, July 8, 2013 5:30 a.m. CDT

The Supreme Court’s boost for same-sex marriage was just and overdue. But the arguments, pro and con, begged a bigger question: Should government be involved in marriage at all?

The answer would seem “no.”

Marriage should be the business of clergy and ship captains. The government should bestow its blessings only on civil unions, however defined. Several comments of the past week bolster this view.

“Now I can marry the person I love,” was the victory refrain of gays suddenly able to wed in California. Let us toast the impending nuptials.

But government doesn’t grant marriage status to certify love. It does so to designate who qualifies for the rights and benefits attached to being in a government-sanctioned marriage. Lots of married people don’t love their partners. Lots of unmarried people do. But love or no, married people do receive thousands of government bennies.

The Supreme Court did good, ditching the part of the Defense of Marriage Act denying gays legally married in a dozen states the federal benefits available to married heterosexuals. “By extending health insurance and other important benefits to federal employees and their families, regardless of whether they are in same-sex or opposite sex marriages,” Attorney General Eric Holder announced, “the Obama administration is making real the promise of this important decision.”

Very nice, but why do married couples get this help with long-term care insurance, retirement and countless other things, and sisters caring for each other do not? It doesn’t compute now and never did. Then there are the legal rights.

One of last week’s cases was brought on behalf of Edith Windsor, hit with a $363,000 tax on the estate of her gay partner. Although they’d been together for 42 years and had married in Toronto, the federal government did not recognize their marriage as legal. Had they been heterosexual and married, the property would have passed to the surviving partner free of estate tax.

The court ruled that the federal government had to recognize marriages deemed legal where they were performed. That’s fair, but tell us why a brother and sister similarly caring for one another should have to pay estate taxes if one dies. Or consider television’s “Golden Girls” – rest in peace, Bea Arthur – sharing that lovely house in Miami.

When you think about it, only one thing distinguishes marriage from these other relationships: sex, or the presumption of sex.

Social conservatives opposed to gay marriage rest most of their case on the presumption of children. Their claim that a strong marriage provides the best structure for raising children seems solid. It does not quite follow, though, that the parents must be of different genders.

Marriage doesn’t necessarily lead to procreation, and being gay does not necessarily mean being childless. Justice Anthony Kennedy, having noted that a law banning same-sex marriage did “legal injury” to 40,000 children in California living with gay parents, argued that the DOMA “places same-sex couples in an unstable position of being in a second-tier marriage.”

The point that centuries of tradition dictate that marriage be a mystical bonding between man and woman ignores the 21st century. Former model Christie Brinkley enjoyed all the rights and benefits of marriage with all four of her husbands. One must ask either “why?” or “why not?”

If nurturing children is a goal of government, government should nurture children. There are child tax credits, day care, aid for education and many other ways to further that mission.

Tying financial benefits to this fuzzy institution called marriage makes no sense. Let other authorities marry people for religious, romantic, spiritual or whatever reasons. Government should get out of this business.

• Froma Harrop is a member of the Providence Journal editorial board. Follow her on Twitter @fromaharrop.

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