Saturday, February 18, 2006

The History of Marriage

Interesting article at Knight-Ridder about a bill being considered in the New Jersey legislature that would legalize gay marriage. The debate is revolving around the tension between history and social change. Supporters of the legislation are saying that marriage has always been limited by specific defining conditions; most of these limits have long since been removed, because they no longer reflect cultural understandings of what is right and appropriate.

Opponents say same-sex marriage is - among other things - a historical contradiction. Marriage, they say, has always been between a man and a woman and the laws are written to reflect that.

That argument echoes reasoning that has been proffered time and again to defend such outmoded laws as those that defined wives as the property of their husbands, or that prohibited divorce, or even prevented epileptics and other disabled people from marrying.

All of those laws eventually fell and today would be considered preposterous, despite the strong weight of history and culture in their favor when they were challenged.

One of the key questions for the justices in New Jersey, and for courts all over the nation, is whether the long traditions surrounding marriage trump demands to eliminate eons-old gender restrictions in the name of equality.

"I think people who talk about history as a reason to deny gay marriage just don't really know what the history is," said Jon Davidson, legal director for Lambda Legal Defense Fund, the advocacy group that represents the gay couples seeking marriage licenses in New Jersey.

"People need to recognize that throughout our history, there were all sorts of people not allowed to marry."

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