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Schubart: Marriage and the State

04/16/09 7:55AM By Bill Schubart
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(HOST) Now that Vermonters, through their legislative representatives, have extended equal rights to all couples to marry, commentator Bill Schubart is asking,  "Why again do we do this?"

(SCHUBART) Vermonters have again decided in favor of equal rights for its diversifying citizenry. While there are some who see Vermont as The Pied Piper of New England, leading us down the path to Sodom and Gomorrah, in fact, Vermonters have made no specific value judgment, have endorsed no unique ethical canon; we are simply adhering to two basic tenets of our state and federal constitutions:  the equal treatment of our citizens under the law and the separation of church and state.

The lingering question as we now move onto other matters of state is why is our government in the marriage business at all? The state's only compelling interest as it relates to marriage is to ensure the safety and well-being of children. Ironically, the same people who oppose equal marriage rights also oppose the state's child protection efforts under the rubric of "parental rights."

Why again is the state in the marriage business? I can't answer that question, nor has anyone else I've asked been able to.

What if the state simply required couples to register their union on a website regardless of whether it's a religious or personal decision? Should the union dissolve over time, the couple would annul their union online. If there are children, the couple would file a child custody and welfare plan with the state, detailing financial and developmental plans for the children. This would be reviewed and approved, or not, by the state on the children's behalf.  Property disagreements would be handled in civil court, custody and support disagreements, in family court.

The spiritual union of two individuals is the purview of our churches and the individuals themselves, not the state. For the 45% of Vermonters who declared themselves "nones" - meaning they did not choose a religious affiliation on their census - the decision to unite as a couple should be solely a matter of mutual choice.

We need to ask more questions about how and why we do things in government.  While principles are enduring, relevance isn't, and process shouldn't be.  Things change. What was once true may not be today. Government can be a vital organizing element of society and the economy but its mission and canon of laws need to be reviewed periodically though to ensure relevance to today's world.

By way of example, laws designed to ensure the safety of dairy products enacted decades ago when Vermonters milked only cows has, by default, been applied to dairy goats and sheep whose biological make up varies greatly from that of cows. This seemingly small issue has been a significant impediment to the growth of Vermont's diversifying agricultural sector.

True leadership does not simply advocate against "excessive government."  It constantly reviews social and economic relevance, process efficiency and management quality.  Would the CEO of IBM simply say, "Let's get small, rather than let's get better at what we do?"  And sometimes we simply need to ask again, "Why again do we do this?"

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