Ottawa Citizen

Saturday 12 June 1999

Rules of engagement

The Ottawa Citizen

Marriage, common-law marriage, gay marriage. Tax benefits, adoption, Supreme Court rulings and motions in Parliament reaffirming "the union of one man and one woman." The debate over relationships is growing increasingly complicated. If ever there was a time to revisit basic principles, it is now.

Yesterday, we laid out arguments for letting the state-imposed institution of common-law marriage lapse. A liberal democratic state should be neutral about how we pursue our lives. It should neither forbid us from forming certain relationships -- such as common-law or gay partnerships -- nor should it encourage them. And the state should not burden anyone with quasi-marital obligations they did not choose to take on.

How does such reasoning affect the traditional institution of marriage itself, and the many rights and obligations that traditionally go with it (such as properly providing for children)?

Marriage, like other types of relationships, is a voluntary contract. But we know that by getting married we will be subject to alimony and property division laws. By signing on the dotted line, we accept such obligations. We know also that marriage has a long history in our religious traditions, so that formally entering into matrimony carries moral and behavioural connotations that spring from religion or, at the very least, from the cultural context that flows out of our Judeo-Christian values.

Over the decades in which the social welfare state was built, however, a long list of benefits was added to the basic concept of marriage. The Income Tax Act allows spouses to be claimed as dependents. Child-care expenses and medical bills can be claimed as deductions. Spouses can sponsor their immigrant partners. If one partner dies, spouses can collect their pensions, automatically inherit property, and take the tax benefits of their RRSPs.

Elaborate add-ons are not a good idea in a liberal democracy, since they amount to the state abandoning neutrality and actively encouraging us to enter, as it's often put, "loving, supportive relationships." There's a word for a person who encourages us to do this, and it's not "bureaucrat." It's "mom." The state is not our mother.

Unfortunately, these elaborate state-sponsored incentives to traditional marriage are not about to be scrapped. How can we approach them in a way that at least better fits liberal principles of fairness?

One such principle is equality. The state shouldn't treat people arbitrarily without a compelling reason. The package that goes with marriage is currently only available to a heterosexual couple. Why not to other relationships?

The traditional answer is that the heterosexual couple alone can produce children. That's true (at least for now) but what of it? Child support laws are separate from marriage, exist for the children's good, and impose obligations, as they should, on all parents, not just on spouses.

To illustrate the anomalies of the current set-up, why do heterosexual couples without children have access to the marriage package, but not gay couples with children? This reeks of arbitrary discrimination. We not only have the state interfering in the choices people make, but doing so in discriminatory fashion.

The federal government -- after a big nudge from the Supreme Court's recent M. vs. H. decision, in which a lesbian sought support from her partner after their relationship broke down -- looks set to rectify this by extending all the benefits (and obligations) of the marriage package to same-sex couples. Several provinces are likely to join them, and those that don't will be dragged along by the courts. It's not ideal, but it is equality.

This does not, it must be emphasized, in any way force people to personally approve of anyone else's relationships. Nor does it in any way interfere with social or religious communities that refuse to recognize the relationships they may not approve of -- or that wish to actively espouse the ones they do support. Marriage, as a traditional union of man and woman, has shown its durability over time. There is no need to buttress it with discriminatory practices or shrill fear-mongering against those who make other choices.

Copyright 1999 Ottawa Citizen