The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Get the gov. out of marriage

Brian Kaneb | Wednesday, October 5, 2011

What is the one institution that has a monopoly on defining marriage? Initially, you may think that religion does. After all, dozens of people gather for the wedding at particular religious establishment of choice. Then, the couple is pronounced “man and wife” and they are a married couple. All of the important moments seem to happen in some sort of place of worship.

Yet, the sad fact is that our government defines marriage. Your marriage is not recognized until both parties sign an official government document after the ceremony. Though some couples would like to ignore this — after all, it’s only the fact that they share a true love that counts — that is simply unrealistic.

If you do not conform to the government’s official definition of marriage, countless economic benefits will be lost. Literally every single program that the government manages discriminates against such people. For a glimpse into this injustice, just take a brief look at the American tax system.

In 2004, the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) “identified a total of 1,138 federal statutory provisions classified to the United States Code in which marital status is a factor in determining or receiving benefits, rights and privileges.” The result is that, amongst other tax breaks, the standard deduction for an officially married is $11,600. On the other hand, the standard deduction for an unrecognized couple is just $5,800.

Getting away from the tax code, unrecognized couples rarely get equal consideration by our courts. As everybody knows, not every relationship ends happily. Even after years together, one person may choose to leave the other. A legal battle over property rights, amongst other things, often ensues. One partner typically comes out disappointed and feels like he or she got the short end of the stick. But what if this person couldn’t even go to court due to a lack of standing? Such is the case with the vast majority unrecognized couples. Because states only allow their courts to consider civil cases pertaining to official couples, many are forced to resolve the dispute by themselves. Without the rule of law, one person often runs the risk lose everything when a relationship ends.

Even when it comes to death, certain couples are treated unequally. Let’s take two hypothetical people, Alex and Jesse. They are a retired couple and have lived happily together as a couple for 30 years. Then, one day, Alex dies in a controversial car accident. Preliminary reports indicate that the car’s braking system may have malfunctioned. Jesse is left alone, but for one reason or another, was never recognized as Alex’s spouse by the government. Thus, Jesse cannot transfer Alex’s 401k funds into her own retirement account.

Despite being invested in a relationship for decades, the government does not believe that she qualifies for the same treatment as a married couple. In many cases, Jesse can’t even take a wrongful death lawsuit to court because she won’t get any benefits. On top of this, she is left with the extra cost of burying her partner without any government support. The typical married couple would receive upwards of $225 in assistance, but this is not the case for Jesse.

It is for all these reasons that all levels of government should recognize civil unions and leave the definition of marriage to society. If there is anything my article has shown, it is that our government cannot handle defining marriage. It abuses this power.

By solely recognizing civil unions, regardless of sexuality, we can bypass controversy and put our country on the fast track towards fixing this problem. Conservatives should be satisfied with civil unions because they do not force marriage on anybody. The government would stay out of marriage, allowing any specific religious community to be able to marry whomever they want. Liberals should be satisfied with civil unions because they guarantee equal rights to all couples. Even if a religion chooses not to marry specific types of people, they would still be able to apply for a civil union and receive equal benefits from the government.

Ask yourself: Why should the government play favorites?

Brian Kaneb is a sophomore. He can be reached at bkaneb1@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.