The Married State

Daniel Hill, ‘The State and Marriage: Cut the Connection‘ (Law and Religion UK, blogpost, 21st June 2018)

The title of this polemical blogpost is admirably succinct and self-explanatory.  The learned author does not have a good word to say about the state’s involvement in marriage.  He makes 3 specific criticisms:

(1) ‘the state is intruding itself as a third party into our marriages’

(2) state involvement in marriage discriminates against couples who ‘have chosen not to go through a legally binding ceremony of marriage’.

(3) last, but not least, the bureaucratic character of state involvement in marriage is ‘romance-killing’.

Criticisms (2) and (3) are unpersuasive.  The author writes movingly about an unmarried couple of his acquaintance whose ‘commitment to each other … does not seem to me to be less than the commitment … of many legally married couples’.  Yet their lack of legal marriage means that ‘they are not eligible for [marriage-related] tax breaks … so, what justifies the state in discriminating against them?’

A possible answer to this question is that the state can hardly be expected to appreciate the couple’s ‘commitment’ to each other (no matter how obvious this may be to family and friends) if the couple neglect or refuse to notify it to the state, by means of a legal marriage.

As for ‘romance-killing’, it is arguable that the legal formalities of marriage are a salutary reminder that marriage is rather more than mere romantic feelings.  The learned author himself describes marriage as ‘a form of shared life’.  It is not merely a shared feeling.

Criticism (1) may have some force, though perhaps not what the author intended.  It is true that a man and a woman marry each other.  They are not married by the state.

The Book of Common Prayer teaches that ‘holy matrimony … is an honourable estate, instituted of God in the time of man’s innocency’, long before the state existed.  Marriage is a God-given status, not a status conferred by mere human law.  It has been argued that the modern state has undermined or corrupted the Divine status of marriage by sanctioning the dissolution of marriages (‘Those whom God hath joined together, let no man put asunder’), and, more recently, by permitting same-sex ‘marriage’.

In the case of Dalrymple v Dalrymple (1811) 161 English Reports 665, Sir William Scott observed that ‘Marriage in its origin is a contract of natural law … It is the parent, not the child, of civil society’ (p.669).  He also observed of ancient Jewish law that ‘Amidst the manifold ritual provisions made by [Moses] there is no ceremony prescribed for the celebration of marriage’.

Indeed for many centuries in England a couple might validly marry without an official ceremony (a ‘common law marriage’).  Common law marriage continued to be valid until Lord Hardwicke’s Marriage Act 1753 provided that no marriage would be recognised at law without an official ceremony (in the parish church).

The 1753 Act was not uncontroversial at the time.  It meant that Roman Catholics and Protestant non-conformists had to submit to the Anglican marriage rite.  Poor people could ill afford the fees.  Grand families may have found it distasteful to marry amidst the hoi polloi of the parish, rather than in the seclusion of private chapels.  Many freedom-loving Englishmen took the view that it was a man’s own business where and how he got married.  Horace Walpole wrote sarcastically to a friend ‘It is well that you are [already] married’, and complained that the 1753 Act was ‘impudent’ and contained ‘as many impediments and formalities … as a treaty of peace’ (Cobbetts Parliamentary History, volume 15, column 32).

Although an official ceremony only became essential in 1753, the state (or the Church, which is the ecclesiastical state) has always exercised jurisdiction over the marriage contract, whether or not the contract was made in an official ceremony.

The learned author is rather vague about what marriage actually is.  He describes it as a ‘commitment’, a ‘personal and intimate relationship’ and ‘a form of shared life’, but not as a contract or status.  However, there is nothing vague about his proposal.  Not only would there be no officially recognised ceremony, but the state would lose all jurisdiction over the constitution, validity and subsistence of the commitment / relationship / shared life that is marriage.  Marriage would become a contract without a jurisdiction, a status unknown to the law.

So who would decide the constitution, validity and subsistence of a marriage, if the state could not?  The parties themselves, presumably.  Yet why should the parties be trusted to respect the God-given status of marriage, any more than the state?  If marriage depends on nothing more than the present wishes and feelings of the parties, it will soon lose the character of both a status and a contract.  It would become a mere sociological phenomenon, or an academic subject for students of natural law.

There is also the likelihood that, absent state authority, marriage questions would be decided, not by the parties jointly, but by the stronger party.  The case of A v L (2010) 2 Family Law Reports 1418 refers to the ability of a husband under Muslim (Sharia) law to divorce his wife by unilateral decision.  The Bible, of course, relates that ‘Moses command[ed] that a man give his wife a certificate of divorce and send her away … because your hearts were hard‘ (Matthew 19, 7-8).

We trust that the learned author is not hard-hearted in seeking to ‘cut the connection’ between marriage and the state.  But his marriage proposal, though thought-provoking, is singularly ill-considered, and should be turned down.