To my knowledge, HB 569 is the first bill ever drafted and introduced in a legislature that would abolish government marriage licensing. The bill is the brainchild of libertarian Republican members of the New Hampshire state house. Currently, New Hampshire has same-sex marriage, but with the current Republican supermajority in both houses of the legislature, that policy is in serious jeopardy.
The libertarian position on marriage is that it is a contract that should be recognized and applied by the courts, but that the government has no business, in general, decreeing who may or may not make the contract or imposing any prior conditions, as licensure does. (There is a libertarian case against recognizing consensual adult incestuous relationships.)
While some conservatives are making positive noises about HB 569, it has come under harsh attack from the left. Check out this discussion at the shrill left-wing site bluehampshire.com if you have the stomach. Democrats are insisting that the bill “abolishes marriage,” because it calls two-person unions “domestic unions” in the statutes. But since when did people define their marriage according to statute anyway?
Democratic opposition to getting government out of deciding who may and may not marry shows that their support for same-sex partnerships is not an issue of civil liberties for them, but instead of imposing their own cultural progressivism on society. Of course, there are surely some Democrats for whom this generalization is false, but in truth, the vast majority of at least the partisan, active Democrats are turning out to be hypocrites on this issue. They never sell same-sex marriage on the argument, “homosexual relationships are morally acceptable and socially desirable, and the government should give its stamp of approval on them.” But that’s apparently what they really mean. (Why aren’t they supporting government licensing of polygamous marriages?)
Now, to be clear, I don’t have any moral problem with homosexuality as such. (The rampant promiscuity of certain gay subcultures is another matter.) But that shouldn’t matter one bit. The government should not be taking moral stands on the issue. By deciding to license some marriages and not others, that’s precisely what government is doing.
Perhaps an analogy might help our progressive friends. Imagine that government is currently funding Christian churches, as some state governments once did. The government decides which churches meet certain doctrinal criteria and gives them a “license” that entitles them to benefits. As society becomes more religiously diverse, campaigners lobby for “church equality” – the government should also give licenses to synagogues, mosques, Hindu temples, and so on. Every house of worship should be recognized as a church and licensed, making them eligible for government benefits. Eventually the campaign succeeds, and government benefits are now available for churches of all religions.
A libertarian proposes a bill to get government out of the church licensing business; it wouldn’t abolish all government benefits for churches, since some of those are established by the federal government, but it would end the practice of deciding who does and does not count as a church. Christian conservatives are upset that Santerians and Scientologists now get to call their establishments “churches” and enjoy official government approval. Some of them support the libertarian bill as a best available compromise, while others insist on restoring “traditional churchdom.” Surprisingly, the left comes out harshly against the bill. “The bill abolishes churches!” they cry. “If government doesn’t tell us what is and isn’t a church, how will we ever know? Hands off my church!” In the background are underrepresented non-faith traditions such as deism and atheism. They aren’t religions, so they can’t have churches, so they can’t get licenses or benefits.
If you don’t think that the First Amendment’s establishment clause “abolishes churches,” then you shouldn’t claim that ending government marriage licensing “abolishes marriage.”
UPDATE: Denis Goddard tells me that the NH Freedom to Marry Coalition, which is generally more liberal and Democratic than either libertarian or Republican, backs HB 569. Good for them. This also suggests that the left is more divided on the issue than I supposed.