New York has a law making it illegal to marry couples without a valid license. Two Unitarian Universalist ministers performed marriage ceremonies for 13 same-sex couples in a pasture on March 6. They now face charges because, as Ulster County District Attorney Donald A. Williams carefully pointed out, they had "proclaimed their intent to perform civil marriages under the authority vested in them by New York State law, rather than performing purely religious ceremonies."
"They did not violate the law," declared their lawyer, Robert C. Gottlieb. "Their only intention was to uphold the law, the Constitution and the right to be free from discrimination. The only people who violated the law here are the clerks who refused to issue the licenses."
Gottlieb is not yet making this argument in a federal court, but the public and legal arguments being made in defense of same-sex marriage lay the groundwork for legalizing polygamy.
The first step is to utterly separate the idea of civil marriage from the religious ideas that produced it. Of course, you don't have to be religious to get married. Nonetheless, our basic ideas about marriage are rooted in specific religiously inspired ideas. Not just the idea that it takes a husband and a wife to make a marriage (which is a human universal), but also other ideas, such as: Men have an obligation to be sexually faithful to their wives (not a human universal), and you can't marry two women at the same time. If the first idea is illegitimate because it is rooted in religious ideas, what happens to the other two?
The second step is to say that this new creature, "civil marriage," is an individual right to a set of legal goodies. Marriage is not a social norm, a way of preferring a certain kind of relationship because this relationship is critical to our civilization. Marriage is a benefits-grab, a way of distributing stuff to anyone who wants to claim it. Everyone has the right to have the law recognize their own private vision of marriage, because nothing important hangs on marriage.
From there it is a short hop to polygamy. After all, if Unitarian ministers in New Paltz have a constitutional right to create legal marriages of any kind they choose, then so do Muslim clergy in Brooklyn.
Maggie Gallagher is a nationally syndicated columnist, a leading voice in the new marriage movement and co-author of The Case for Marriage: Why Married People Are Happier, Healthier, and Better Off Financially.