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In the United States, however, as in most modern nations, government holds those keys.Even if people have been married by their church or religious group, they are not married in the sense that really counts for social and political purposes unless they have been granted a marriage license by the state.But marriage, it soon becomes evident, is no single thing. The institution of marriage houses and supports several distinct aspects of human life: sexual relations, friendship and companionship, love, conversation, procreation and child-rearing, mutual responsibility. (We have always granted marriage licenses to sterile people, people too old to have children, irresponsible people, and people incapable of love and friendship.
Pedophiles, sadists, masochists, sodomites, transsexuals—all can get married by the state, so long as they marry someone of the opposite sex. All across our country, in every region, every social class, every race and ethnicity, every religion or non-religion, people get married.For many if not most people, moreover, marriage is not a trivial matter.Given all this, it seems odd to suggest that in marrying people the state affirmatively expresses its approval or confers dignity.There is indeed something odd about the mixture of casualness and solemnity with which the state behaves as a marrying agent.But much of the officially sanctioned marrying currently done in the United States is done on religious premises by religious personnel.What they are solemnizing (when there is a license granted by the state) is, however, not only a religious ritual, but also a public rite of passage, the entry into a privileged civic status.This result has been seen by the same-sex community as deeply degrading.More recently, Iowa and Vermont have legalized same-sex marriage, the former through judicial interpretation of the state constitution, the latter through legislation.Government plays a key role in all three aspects of marriage. It seems, at least, to operate as an agent of recognition or the granting of dignity. Clergy are always among those entitled to perform legally binding marriages.Religions may refuse to marry people who are eligible for state marriage and they may also agree to marry people who are ineligible for state marriage.