On the abolition of state-endorsed marriage

By Eric Mathison

There’s no place for the state in the bedrooms of the nation.” Pierre Trudeau first spoke those words as minister of justice, in defense of his Omnibus bill that decriminalized homosexual acts and legalized abortion and contraception. It was 1967 and while his measures instituted in that bill have progressed further — you no longer need three doctors to consent for an abortion, for instance — it was important progress nonetheless.

The Acadian presence in Louisiana might lead one to think they keep up on useful quotes by French-Canadians. But if that’s the case generally, it doesn’t seem to apply to an issue that sprung up last week. Keith Bardwell, a justice of the peace in Louisiana, refused to marry an interracial couple because he believes interracial marriages tend not to last and will therefore be bad for the children of those marriages. Bardwell is convinced he has done no wrong; he states that he often marries black couples, which is evidence that he isn’t a racist.

It’s difficult to condone Bardwell’s actions and this isn’t the first time we’ve seen comments of this type from people who don’t want to marry certain other people. Various clergy were in an uproar when discussion of legalizing same-sex marriage came to the fore of Canadian politics. It’s against their beliefs to condone same-sex marriage and marrying same-sex couples is an act of support, so their religious beliefs should prevent them from having to perform such ceremonies. Calgary’s very own Bishop Fred Henry led the charge, stating homosexuality was “an evil act.”

Bardwell hasn’t given religious reasons for his claims: he seems to think that mere anecdotal evidence supports his opinion and he shouldn’t be forced to do something that contradicts that opinion. Bishop Henry has the right to voice his opinion. At the very least he didn’t deserve to be taken to the Alberta Human Rights Commission over the comment. He also should be allowed to refuse to marry same-sex couples if that is his prerogative. But the issue becomes more complicated when a justice of the peace makes a similar refusal.

In Louisiana parishes (they’re called parishes instead of counties in Louisiana), a justice of the peace is not required to perform marriages and so may decline to marry two people. But they shouldn’t be allowed to pick and choose. Even if Bardwell is right and interracial couples have a higher divorce rate than couples of similar ancestry, that shouldn’t qualify him to refuse to marry them. Justices of the peace are not tasked with that responsibility and this example shows not only the wrong action of one person, but a system that is controlling something it has no reason to control.

Why is marriage controlled by the state anyway? Presumably to limit the types of marriage that are permitted. Polygamy is illegal in both the United States and Canada, but as the occupants of Bountiful, British Columbia will report, no one has been charged with polygamy in Canada in the last 60 years. It seems there are other reasons, too, such as preventing underage marriage. But that task could just as easily fall under criminal law regarding rape if it was between a child and an adult.

The state has no business in the nation’s bedrooms and they have no business ruling over the process that leads to the bedroom, either. In light of this, marriage should be abandoned as a government program. Bardwell’s action was surely wrong, but that wrong wouldn’t have been possible if the state wasn’t involved in the first place. The abandonment of state-endorsed marriage would serve a doubly good function. It would prevent the debate that surrounds the rights to religion versus the right to abstain from religious ethical views one deems unjust; if bishops want to be bigots that’s fine as long as it doesn’t affect the bigoted. Second, the institution of marriage would see the revision it badly needs. It isn’t only same-sex couples who are effected by government intolerance: in the U.S., most states don’t allow atheists to marry unless an ordained minister officiates. In Canada, people who are related only through adoption are banned from marrying. It is these cases that aren’t the majority that allow for the greatest amendment to injustice. We can remove the parts we don’t like from marriage and retain those we deem important: the love of two people recognized by a community.

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