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Asking the wrong questions

Government shouldn't be in marriage business to begin with

If you want a marriage license in North Carolina, you'll have to answer what, for some, may be very difficult questions.

First, they'll ask you if the person you want to marry is your cousin. Since it's legal to marry your first cousin in North Carolina (which explains a lot) but not your double first cousin, they'll ask you if your fiance's parents and your parents are related in any way. If they are, at that point, you can do one of two things -- lie or admit that you are double first cousins and forfeit your marriage license. It won't matter either way to the bureaucrat taking down this information. They'll get paid regardless.

Then you'll be asked if you've been divorced within the last 30 days. It won't matter if you lie about that either, since nobody will check. You'd think somebody would, but in this state, they don't.

If you're honest about the divorce you got two weeks ago, they'll ask to see a copy of your divorce papers. Then the bureaucrat in charge will skim those papers -- unless his or her supervisor is out to lunch, in which case anything could happen -- because, as one official recently explained to me, people sometimes misunderstand what's written on their divorce papers or haven't actually read them.

In other words, some people are too stupid to figure out that they're not yet completely divorced, so the state has to help them understand. After reading your documents, if you're still technically married, the bureaucrat in charge is supposed to explain this to you.

The above is what the state of North Carolina considers a public service. In return for asking you a bunch of questions that are, in actuality, none of the government's business, you'll pay them $50 for their services and they'll hand you a marriage license.

How this process benefits those who want to get married, or anyone else for that matter, is not immediately clear, but how it benefits the state is obvious. It makes about $3.5 million a year off this racket.

That's what I haven't heard anyone bring up yet in the debate over gay marriage. Folks are pretty opinionated either way, but no one is asking the most important question -- whether the government belongs in the marriage business in the first place and exactly what purpose, if any, it is serving.

Think about this for a minute. Couples, gay or straight, can make a spiritual marriage commitment in religious ceremonies without the state's permission, but in order to legally marry someone, you have to get the state's blessing upon your choice of partners or the law will turn a blind eye to your union as if it never happened.

If we weren't so used to it, this would sound like something the leaders of a totalitarian state would cook up. If the state hadn't been issuing marriage licenses since time out of mind, and politicians then suggested that people should have to get a license from the state for their marriages to be legally recognized, citizens would have a reaction similar to the one they'd have if the government suggested that people get a license before having children or the law wouldn't recognize those children as theirs. They'd freak out.

Like today, the original purpose of marriage licenses had nothing to do with protecting either party in the marriage. Before the mid-1800s, early Americans, including founding fathers like George Washington, had always married without a marriage license. But after the Civil War, some folks began to worry about what would happen if there were too much mixing of the black and white races.

Yes, the original purpose of marriage license laws in the United States was to allow states to control interracial marriage. Only interracial couples needed a marriage license to marry. By the mid-1920s, the marriage license requirement had gradually come to apply to everyone.

This is what gay activists are fighting to be a part of. Worse yet, to keep them from getting what they want, conservatives are willing to enshrine the government's power over marriage, theirs or anyone else's, into the Constitution. Either way, government gets more control over our personal lives. It seems to me that rather than fighting over whether the government should allow gay marriage, conservatives and liberals ought to be debating whether we should allow the government to continue to play such a central role in marriage.

It is patently offensive to me that on the altar, in the middle of a religious ceremony, the priest should have to say "by the power vested in me by the State of North Carolina."

People enter into legally binding contracts every day without the state's permission and without getting a license first. Marriage should be no different, no matter the sexual orientation of those signing the contract.

Contact Tara Servatius at

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