The institution of marriage has become the focus of public debate and reform, not just in the state-by-state political battles familiar to us in the United States, but across the world. Some of the longstanding practices currently being scrutinized both here and in other countries include parental approval in the choice of a spouse, permission for a husband to take more than one wife (polygyny), temporary marriage, close relative (incestuous) marriage, strict or permissive divorce terms, mandatory bride virginity, child marriage or betrothal and gender-structured marriage in which wives and husbands have different duties and privileges and therefore must be gender “opposites.”
Marriage reform is typically part of a larger agenda for social change. In earlier eras, challenges to bans on interfaith and interracial marriage were tied to political movements promoting religious, ethnic and racial equality and social integration. In the Middle East, Africa and Asia today, marriage reformers often aim to expand the rights and liberty of girls and women, while in the Americas and Europe, their primary aim is to advance social equality and respect for lesbians and gay men.
While marriage reform is moving forward in many countries (for example, to extend access to same-sex couples), many prominent legal and political theorists — such as Cass Sunstein, Richard Thaler, Martha Fineman, Tamara Metz, Lisa Duggan, Andrew March, and Brook Sadler (to name only some of those who have put their views in writing) — are proposing that the institution of marriage be privatized. More specifically, they propose that we eliminate the term “marriage” from our civil laws and policies, and replace it with a more neutral term, such as “civil union” or “domestic partnership.” The state would then recognize and regulate civil unions rather than civil marriage, and people would exchange marriage-like rights and duties by becoming “civilly united.” Some private organizations, such as religious institutions, might still perform and solemnize marriages among their congregants, but these marriages would have no official state recognition.
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