That is what some Christians and secularists suggest.  They think marriage should be a private institution handled by churches and others, while the government sits by as a neutral observer.  That may salve over the current political and cultural debate over the definition of marriage, but is this a good idea?  Jennifer Roback Morse thinks not, and wrote a three-part series explaining why (1, 2, 3).  She argues that privatizing marriage is not only impossible in practice, but that it would result in more state power and would unnecessarily hurt children.

Privatizing marriage is impossible because “marriage is society’s primary institutional arrangement that defines parenthood. Marriage attaches mothers and fathers to their children and to one another.”  As such, it is an intrinsically public institution.  But what about the fact that not all married couples have children?  Her reply is quite powerful: 

[I]t is perfectly true: not every marriage has children. But every child has parents. This objection stands marriage on its head by looking at it purely from the adult’s perspective, instead of the child’s. The fact that this objection is so common shows how far we have strayed from understanding the public purpose of marriage, as opposed to the many private reasons that people have for getting married.

If no children were ever involved, adult sexual relationships simply wouldn’t be any of the state’s business. What we now call marriage would be nothing more than a government registry of friendships. If that’s all there were to marriage, privatizing it wouldn’t be a big deal. But if there were literally nothing more to marriage than a government registry of friendships, we would not observe an institution like marriage in every known society.[1]

There is simply no practical way of getting the state out of the marriage business.  They would have to involve themselves in defining and regulating marriage since they would ultimately be responsible for resolving marital and parental disputes.  To do so the state would have to determine what are valid marital and parental contracts and what are not.  They either define marriage on the front end or on the back end, but either way they have to take a stand on what marriage is and who has one.

Privatizing marriage would also lead to less freedom and an expanded power of the state.  Children need to be attached to mothers and fathers.  Without marriage law and the presumption of paternity that goes along with it, that state will have to determine who the parents are in any parental dispute, and it won’t always be the biological parents.  This will increase the government’s role and power in the life of the family rather than decrease it. 

Privatizing marriage would also require “contract parenting” (parents are determined by private contract rather than biology).  This places the needs and desires of adults above the needs and desires of children. Morse writes:

Children are entitled to a relationship with both of their parents. They are entitled to know who they are and where they came from. Therefore children have a legitimate interest in the stability of their parents’ union, since that is ordinarily how kids have relationships with both parents. … But children cannot defend their rights themselves. …Marriage is society’s institutional structure for protecting these legitimate rights and interests of children.[2]

If marriage is privatized, adults will be free to contract out parental rights to whomever they desire, depriving the child of their natural right to a relationship with their biological parents.  Contract parenting also objectifies children, treating them as objects to be bargained over rather than subjects with their own interests (even if they cannot be expressed at the time). 

Because of the intimate connection between marriage and children, the move to privatize marriage is in essence a move to privatize parenting.  If we wish to preserve the rights of children and limit the state’s power over the family, then we should oppose the privatization of marriage.  The government should be in the marriage business.


[1]Jennifer Roback Morse, “Privatizing Marriage is Impossible”; available from http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/04/5069; Internet; accessed 27 June 2012.
[2]Jennifer Roback Morse, “Privatizing Marriage is Unjust to Children”; available from http://www.thepublicdiscourse.com/2012/04/5069; Internet; accessed 27 June 2012.

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