Ira Chernus  
PROFESSOR OF RELIGIOUS STUDIES
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER

 

GROUP MARRIAGE: A LEGAL RIGHT?

Today is a rare good news day. A day to celebrate. 50 years ago, on May 17, the Supreme Court said that separate is inherently unequal. Today, that principle is being extended to all the gay and lesbian couples who are getting married in Massachusetts.

Not long ago, here in conservative Colorado, the state legislature refused to endorse a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage ó even though the amendment is being sponsored by Colorado congresswoman, Marilyn Musgrave. Maybe some of our legislators found Musgraveís wording a bit over the top. After all, her amendment would ban marriage not only between couples of the same sex, but also between ó that is, among ó groups.

Groups? Who is advocating legalizing group marriage? It sounds like a scare tactic. Listen to right-wing alarmist Stanley Kurtz, of the conservative Hoover Institute, writing in the neo-con Weekly Standard: "Once we say that gay couples have a right to have their commitments recognized by the state, it becomes next to impossible to deny that same right to polygamists, polyamorists, or even cohabiting relatives and friends. And once everyone's relationship is recognized, marriage is gone."

Segregationists used the same kind of scare tactic 50 years ago, when the Supreme Court was considered the landmark school integration case, Brown vs. Board of Education. Allow the federal government to order white public schools to let blacks in? Why, the next thing you know, they will be ordering schools to educate the "mentally retarded." And everyone knows thatís absurd. The Supreme Court treated that argument as irrelevant. The justices probably agreed it was absurd.

But surprise! Just 20 years later, the federal government did order public schools states to educate children with every kind of disability, including developmental disabilities. The principle of the Brown caseóeveryone has a right to equal education at public expenseówas applied logically and consistently. Could the same thing happen again? Should the right-wingersí talk about group marriage be dismissed as just a scare tactic?

The whole point of going beyond co-habitation to marriage is to get the legal rights dispensed by the government (inheritance, medical decisions, joint tax filing, etc). As the Supreme Court said 50 years ago, everyone has a right to equal treatment under the law. You canít treat two groups differently and say that they are equal. Thatís the strongest argument for gay marriage. Itís just a matter of giving gays the same rights as straights. Any two people should have the right to marry, on this view. Still, many gays agree with many straights that marriage should always and forever be a union of two and only two people.

What is so sacred, though, about the number two? Is there a good reason to restrict marriage to couples? I have not heard one yet.

Arguments that are sometimes made against group marriage actually turn out to be arguments for group marriage. Some may say that legal marriage of three or more just couldnít work. Itís too complicated. However, there are all sorts of legal arrangements involving three or more people that work just fine. A corporation, for example, is a legal arrangement allocating rights (and privileges) to thousands of people. No one suggests making two the maximum number of people who can form a corporation. And there are thousands of non-legalized co-habitations involving three or more people that work just fine.

There is also concern about decision-making in a life crisis. Would you rather have decisions about your life (or your estate after death) made by just one person who loves you deeply, or two or more people who love you deeply? Why not let the burden be shared? Monogamous marriage hardly obviates family wrangles in such situations, anyway. So there is no strong argument here against group marriage.

Right-wing writer Kurtz repeats the most common argument against group marriage: "[Monogamous] marriage is a critical social institution. Stable families depend on it. Children need the stable family environment provided by marriage." But since when is monogamy a sure-fire recipe for stable families? How stable are all the monogamous marriages you know? The two-parent nuclear family is just as likely to be an unstable pressure-cooker.

Children raised by three or more may be happier and healthier than those raised by just two. These kids will certainly grow up with a better adult to child ratio. They will be more likely to find an adult with the time to give them the attention and support they need. And the financial support pool will be bigger, too.

Itís not group marriage that needs to be defended. Itís monogamy. Monogamy works fine for some people, no doubt. But the demand for monogamy in every love relationship brings untold pain and suffering to many more. Our music, our movies, our tabloids, and everything else in our culture tell us that if we canít have undivided, eternal, monogamous love, we have no love at all: "S/he found another, and Iím so blue, I want to lay me down and die."

Sooner or later s/he probably will find another. Thatís how humanity seems to work. If the only response we have learned is suffering unto death, we are bound to suffer. Itís a system calculated to produce pain.

But suppose we learned, from earliest childhood, that when s/he finds another we should celebrate and reach out to embrace that other. Their new love is bringing more love and happiness into the world. If we have the strength and good cheer to reach out and embrace them, to enlarge the circle of love, we are bringing more love and happiness into the world, too.

Monogamy is no more a part of "human nature" than heterosexuality or racial segregation. Itís all a matter of social learning. There are already many thousands of Americans who have learned, from experience, that it doesnít hurt to enlarge the circle of love from a couple to a triad or a group. It can feel wonderfully good. Once you break out of the monogamy trap, the demand for absolute monogamy, which creates so much unnecessary pain, looks counter-productive, self-destructive, and downright silly.

If you support integrated schools, gay marriage rights, and logical consistency, you have to support marriage rights for groups. As we look back 50 years to equal rights for all races, and celebrate today as Massachusetts gives equal rights to all sexual orientations, letís look ahead 50 years, to the day that group marriage becomes not just legal, but totally accepted.


[ HOME ]   [ COURSES ]   [ RESEARCH ]   [ CONTACT ME ]
[ OP-ED COLUMNS  /  SINCE SEPT. 11 ]   [ PUBLIC CITIZEN ]