Refusing to recognize marriage

September 4, 2010 | By | 13 Replies More

Tom Ackerman has an provocative approach for dealing with a constantly simmering problem here in America: gay marriage. Whenever someone mentions their husband or wife (or their “marriage”), he makes a blunt statement that he “doesn’t recognize marriage.”   His reason?  “[N]obody should have marriage until everybody does.”  That gives people who have been privileged with the ability to marry a bit of the perspective of those are aren’t allowed this privilege. Here’s how he does it:

Yesterday I called a woman’s spouse her boyfriend.

She says, correcting me, “He’s my husband,”
“Oh,” I say, “I no longer recognize marriage.”

The impact is obvious. I tried it on a man who has been in a relationship for years,

“How’s your longtime companion, Jill?”
“She’s my wife!”
“Yeah, well, my beliefs don’t recognize marriage.”

Fun. And instant, eyebrow-raising recognition. Suddenly the majority gets to feel what the minority feels. In a moment they feel what it’s like to have their relationship downgraded, and to have a much taken-for-granted right called into question because of another’s beliefs.


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Category: American Culture, Friendships/relationships

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (13)

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  1. Tony Coyle says:


    I may borrow that!

    My own 'longtime companion' and I lived together for over 7 years before getting married in a civil ceremony (15 minutes at the registry office, with two neighbors as witnesses) just over fifteen years ago (so we've now been together over 22 years as a co-habiting couple).

    The label only made a difference in how other people responded to us. As 'boyfriend' or 'girlfriend' there was always a sense of impermanence (to others, not to us). We were fed up explaining the permanence of our relationship, even in liberal, laid back Scotland (we were on our third house/mortgage by this point). Since Susan was pregnant with our son… we thought it would make his life easier (and be a nice 'birth' day present for him) if Mom & Dad were both Coyles!

    I would rather that such were not the case – that we could have remained as we were, since we were perfectly happy… it was only the occasional externalities regarding non-marriage that was annoying to us.

    Marriage is not the joining of two people in love. Susan & I already had that for seven years, and the past fifteen have not changed that.

    However, if we had not gotten married, we would have been unable to come to the US as a family (my 'wife' of seven years, and the mother of my child, would have had to gain an entry visa in her own right, and not simply as my SO). That would have been so wrong!

    Marriage is simply a legal construct. One that we (luckily) complied with before entry to the US.

    As a legal construct – it should be available to all, without discrimination. Or it should be denied to all.

    Compared to my gay friends, I feel unfairly privileged.

  2. We have had a somewhat different experience, having never "tied the knot" in any formal manner. But after so many years, people see us as married, no matter what, even friends who have strong moral views on the subject and reject "living in sin." Commitment, it seems, establishes itself.

  3. Karl says:

    Joining a religious group is similar to marriage but in marriage there is the intention to live together as man and woman and to love and care for each other inspite of what events and circumstances they may find themselves.

    Officially joining or becoming a part of most religious organizations is not the same as the joining of most organized collective civic groups. Joining and staying a full member in good standing with some churches requires adherence to some minimally or excessively restrictive legal code. Joining of most civic groups simply requires a commitment to show up and put some skin in the game as it has been phrased lately.

    There is a sense by which there is a parallel between entering into legal agreements of civil unions with that of joining a civic organization. There are minimal legal requirments to establish the civil union whereas a marriage is not the same unless one does away entirely with the commonly accepted definition of marriage altogether.

    Members of civic groups can share similar worldviews in general but they for the most part do not require its affiliates or members to join together for matters of belief, but rather for common purposes that frankly are often specifically done to reach practical and pragmatic shared goals, not necessarily because their worldviews are exactly alike. In these cases a shared common goal does not mean they have changed or dropped their own standards.

    Joining of religious groups to one degree or another involves a "faith" or "belief" component that is either a written or an unwritten SOP to determine if there is a fit between the worldviews of both the organization and those seeking membership. Most churches without the label Universalist in their ideology carry out to some degree "Acts of exclusivity" because they have to some degree or another required a match between the worldviews of its members. To often the leadership of these organizations don't consider the harm caused by how they throw up the barriers of exclusivity to those who may have once received a pat on the back – or a Temple Recommend if you will.

    Members of civic groups can share similar worldviews in general but they for the most part do not require its affiliates or members to join together for matters of belief, but rather for common purposes that frankly are often specifically done to reach practical and pragmatic shared goals, not just because their worldviews have a great deal in common.

    Most religious groups seek to be conservative or restorative to the values they consider important. Civic groups seek minimal consensus so a common end can be accomplished.

    Men and women that share their lives and sexual intimacies in either some minimally, moderately or excessively exclusive ways also promote their worldview in so doing. Men and women committed to each other can certainly be easily recognized as being married by civil authorites by common law as their practices and actions speak as loud or louder than their words.

    The civil requirments for a marriage license are much lower than those say of the Catholic church or Mormons who can even restrict parents from entrance to their children's Temple weddings if they are in opposition to the basic beliefs ot tenets of the Morman faith.

    Civil unions are not called marriages because there is a degree to which men and women need the other to procreate whether they think so or not. This says nothing about the quality or degree of love and devotion people can have in any relationship of their own choosing.

    Love and care for each other is more of function of the care givers worldviews and beliefs than the physical realities of sexuality, but physical realities have to be the common minimal reality for any sensible definition of a marriage.

    Maybe we need to drop all qualifiers to anything a vocal group wishes to decry as "too much exclusivity." If such is the case then what would even be the point of having a marriage liscence in the first place?

    Leave the state out of any definition of marriage and only require people to complete a civil union certificate, if anyone can ever agree on how to word it so that its not exclusive in any way.

    It is obvious that every civil documented marriage can not contain a record of the extent to what hoops the people had to go through to actually get society at large to recognize their marriage. Does this mean we can dissolve male and female into shemales and the like?

    Does this mean we need to change how restrictive marriage is for the Mormons? Or that we need to regulate what every religious group or civil court can call a marriage? I don't think so.

    Anyone can enter into civil agreements to show who they want to be their significant other. They can buy houses jointly, they can own joint bank accounts, they can adopt children together all of this can show their intentions to share their lives, properties and worldviews together.

    It is not unreasonable to think that there should ever be practical minimal ideas concerning the degree of exclusivity people caring for oneanother through the formation of either a marriage with religious connotations or civil unions with frankly next to no religious connotations.

    Why is there is such a strong insistence upon frankly telling people of faith that this man and woman thing is too exclusive and that anything between assumed consenting sdults should a called as marriage if they want it to be?

    If the civic leaders get involved in creating such goals as mandating what marriages are by the most minimal amount of offense to the non-religious this means that the civic organizations no longer consider freedom of someones religion something they can no longer put up with. The civic or secular will have indeed done away with the minimal religious connotation that marriage has nearly always been associated with because others have worldviews that think the religious are just too exclusive in how they define their terms.

    Its the civil courts that don't know what to do when others make claims concerning the non-exclusivity of a relationship. They often need to know what to do with children and finances and so forth when their is a break up in the relationships between people who thought they were in a sexually exclusive loving and caring arrangement, or that were sharing the lives and worldly possessions together.

    Religious Marriages and/or Civil Unions are matters of public declaration so that there is less unclarity that the people involved have entered into a relationship of agreement(legal) and/or commitment(faithfulness)to oneanother.

    Its obvious that people do not need the approval of others before they have a right to make a decision regarding who they have chosen or how they would like to try to consider to be their significant other.

    Marriage liscences bogusly controlled by anti-religious civic leaders reveal a the contempt of these leaders for their oaths of office when they were given their role of responsibility.

    It would be like a politician taking an office with the express intent of changing the very foundational ideas, policies, interpretations and worldviews expressed in a document that enabled him or her to obtain the office in the first place.

  4. Tony Coyle says:


    You are both right and wrong.

    Right, in that marriage is indeed the recognition of two people who live together as man and wife – as Mark and his partner do.

    Wrong, in suggesting that the religious aspect is somehow more important or historically relevant or socially impactful than the purely civil aspects of their 'merger'.

    Have an honest look at history – including where and when the churches started taking an interest in marriage, in codifying and controlling the civil act of marriage.

    You will of course note that a religious ceremony is considered insufficient to confer the legal status of 'married' – a fact that is true (pretty much) everywhere in the world – but that the civil ceremony is everywhere binding and sufficient unto itself.

    That suggests that, to the majority of the human race, it is the contractual relationship which is preeminent.

    This is why the civil rite of marriage should be freely available to all citizens, regardless of their sexual preference.


    Note that this is not a wedge issue to then allow bestiality, polygamy, polyandry, paedophilia, or other illegal behaviors. It is merely to allow legal contracts for all citizens – many of whom are currently discriminated against.

    I say illegal rather than immoral, because my moral code is not determined by a bronze-age philosophy – others are. Morals are relative, laws are absolute (if mutable).

  5. Tony,

    Gotta quibble with you on this one. Since until recent (modern) times the church and the state were generally one and the same, or at least different departments of the same mindset, it's not really possible to argue that "civil" marriage has always trumped "religious" marriage. The state controlled marriage via the church and, at least in Europe, the church was a power broker among states because it had the authority to sanctify and legitimize marriages among princes and princesses. You don't really have a recognizably independent civil marriage tradition until some time in the 18th century and becoming more prevalent after the two major revolutions—the American and the French.

  6. Tony Coyle says:

    Mark – I'll accept that quibble, agreeing with qualifiers…

    In my understanding, marriage was always a contract first, and a religious rite second – it was always and ever about property rights, and gaining progeny to guarantee the continuation of those rights. For the vast majority of people (read peasants) marriage wasn't ever an issue, nor was it sanctified by any church – it was usually/often a simple cohabitation arrangement. No issue because there was no real property to consider in these cases!

    Marriage was always the reserve of those with property, and was always a contractual arrangement dealing with that property, regardless of whatever other trappings a society imposed on the act.

    That the churches decided to get a piece of the action is unsurprising, given the normal religious MO. That it took them so long to get a piece of the action from everyone, is surprising.

    However – I wasn't there – so I can only go on my interpretation of the various histories that I've read… and the history of marriage is very much open to interpretation. I've shared my interpretation here.

    One concept I find really interesting is the Christian (and other) approach to marriage being exclusively patrilineal. The vast majority of marriage, anthropologically speaking, was (from my reading) matrilineal, and some modern anthropologists define marriage as the joining of "a woman with one or more partners such that children born to the woman are the recognized legitimate offspring of the woman and the responsible partner". Interesting, no?

  7. Alison says:

    Clearly then, as Karl has outlined, the civil aspect must be made much more important and legally binding. Since it has so many implications for the families involved and society as a whole, the solution is not to have separate legal unions depending on the gender(s) of the spouses, but to have a single, unified civil union contract that is required for all people who want to be legally recognized as a committed (lifelong, one would hope) couple.

    It must become less casual, less perceived as secondary to the religious ceremony, and the more important proof of commitment than the religious union.

    People who objected to sharing "marriage" with same-sex couples could then opt for the religious union only, and maybe their churches could help them with the long, expensive legal process of getting all the paperwork that would guarantee them the rights of a civil union without actually having to participate in the distasteful practice.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Alison: I would concur with you that states should offer only civil unions, baskets of defined legal rights, to any two people who wish to be part of a civil union. People might colloquially refer to this as a marriage, but the state would stop offering "marriages." Instead, a marriage would be something that you enter as part of a private (non-government) organization, such as a church. To discriminate against any two adults wanting to enter a "civil union" would be prohibited. This would further offer conservatives most of the relief that they seek: that they can define marriage the way they want within their churches. If they don't want allow gays to marry (or people who have already been married 5 times, or whatever), they would be free to refuse marriage to such people, by the authority of their church. Defining marriage would thus be a matter of religion or culture or morality, not law. Civil unions would be a matter of law, not religion, culture or morality.

      BTW, getting the government out of the marriage business will sidestep an interesting legal issue. Most states allow a couple to be married by someone with religious authority, such as a priest, minister or rabbi. But some states (e.g., Pennsylvania) try to exclude some officiants (such as Internet ministers) because they aren't sufficiently religious. I ask, what right does the government have to determine whether an organization is sufficiently legitimate.

  8. Tony,

    Peasants by definition "don't count", this is true, but because the nobility accepted those norms, that's what the peasantry thought mattered, so at every opportunity they sought to emulate their "role models."

    I've seen the matrilineal arguments and I won't deny such was the case in many places, but—and (to quote Bill Cosby) it's a heavy But—it seems always to transform into patrilineal once a certain level of, shall we say, empire is achieved. Once a culture reaches the point of building stone palaces and roads and having armies, patriarchy consumes it—either as a consequence or a precondition, it's hard to say.

  9. Tony Coyle says:

    Mark – I agree with your thesis that partiarchy trumps matriarchy whenever 'empire' hits its stride (some notable exceptions in the Celts and Amerind tribes, notwithstanding). Also agree that we don't know enough to know if this is correlation or coincidence (these are the histories that 'won').

    Erich: regarding the ceremony of marriage – doesn't the pastor, priest, registrar (whomever), have to include the words "and by the power vested in me by the State/Commonwealth of XXX" before pronouncing the couple married? That says to me that their right to officiate the rite is a right by proxy granted by the state. Right? Also – I like your enhancement of Allison's suggestion regarding the expansion of Civil Union as pre-eminent and the only one recognized in law.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Tony: I don't think that most states specifically require any allusion to the state during the ceremony, although many officiants do utter "by the authority invested in me by the State of ___________ ". I am also aware (because I am an ordained minister with the Universal Life Church and I have officiated over three weddings) that the paperwork I sign (I've done this in Missouri and Maine) invokes the power of the state. Here is a good summary of the marriage laws of the various states.

  10. Tony Coyle says:


    Thanks for that, I stand corrected. Always good to know the facts rather than conjecture. Coming from a different legal system causes me some cognitive hiccups from time to time.

    I'll blame my confusion on the neuronal leakage from my skull (that's why my hair is turning grey, right?)

    I'm not at all certain I would wish to become ordained in a 'church' that would accept me! (curmudgeonly to the end)

  11. Mariah says:

    I am actually not even going to get married, I told my life companion that he and I are going to have to live with a civil union and stop thinking about marriage because if my gay friends aren’t allowed, then why should I get married?

    Its a social norm, and it needs to actually be abolished if it isn’t fair for all…why marry anyone?

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