The federal government has no authority over marriage, except to the limited extent that it can ensure interstate recognition of marriages (under the full faith and credit clause). There are a few other areas where marriage may be relevant under federal law and policy — with regard to taxes and federal employment benefits. In both cases, the federal government must accept state marriages.
My tax plan would eliminate any nexus to marriage in the tax code, and that would leave only federal employment benefits. I am inclined to think that these (and all other employee benefits) ought to be decoupled from civil marriage, but that’s a more difficult issue that will need more untangling. For example, my health reform plan would encourage employers to get out of controlling what kinds of health insurance people get for themselves and their families.
So that covers what we’ll do with marriage at the federal level (all other laws, regulations, and court decisions relating to marriage are null and void for violating the principles of federalism and the constitutional limits on government, except those that have a direct nexus to human rights and natural law).
But we should begin to have a discussion as a society about why we need to have government recognition of marriage at all at any level. In any moral sense, the government does not determine who is married and who is not.
I married my wife in a religious ceremony and under the Christian conception of marriage. Under my religious beliefs, I am married to my wife. This is true regardless of whether the Commonwealth of Virginia or any other state agrees. They may give or withhold their recognition and I don’t really care. I don’t need bureaucratic affirmation. Likewise, I believe that some people are not married even if the state says they are. You may have your own idea of what marriage is and is not, and who is married and who is not, that differs from mine. Fine. That’s freedom.
There are a few convenient benefits tied to civil marriage. Those commonly referenced include the tax benefits, hospital visitation rights and medical decision making (in the absence of a living will), inheritance (in the absence of a will), and so on. But there is no reason these have to be tied up with a neutered civil form of marriage…especially one that often does not align with natural law.
Again, this isn’t really a federal issue. But my suggestion to the states is that they eliminate civil marriage, and replace it either with nothing at all or, if necessary, with a morally and religiously neutral civil union statute.
Individuals would be free to call their relationships (and others’ relationships) whatever they want to call them, and that would be decoupled from unnecessary state recognition. In states that maintain a civil union law, people would be free to enter into (and leave) those unions for the aforementioned civil conveniences. In states that don’t, any people (married or not) would still be free to arrange hospital visitation and medical decision making, inheritance, and all the other stuff through other methods.
There is a human right to free association (one of the liberty rights). This means that people are free to associate with one another however they want. And they can call those associations whatever they want too. But rights impose no duties on others. And so, while you do have a right to enter into an intimate relationship with whomever you wish, and to call that intimate relationship a marriage if that’s what you believe it is, you still have no right to compel others — individuals or governments — to endorse or recognize it.