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Changing the legal definition of marriage

Recent events have forced Texas and other states to change how the law looks at marriage. There is a lot of debate among Americans as to the relation between the legal definition of marriage and the religious definition of marriage. The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Obergefell changes nothing about the definition of marriage that religious institutions decide applies within their organizations. The decision does change the application of the government’s definition of marriage.

In some European and Latin American countries, the civil ceremony and religious ceremony must be held separately. In the U.S., civil marriages may be a part of religious ceremonies and held at the same time, but they are distinct and separate.

Many religious institutions have a static definition of marriage that does not match the legal definition. For example, the Catholic Church does not allow interfaith marriages and does not recognize divorce, so second marriages are not approved unless the former spouse died. Islam allows a man to have multiple wives; Judaism allows only one man and one woman to marry. Both Islam and Judaism believe that marriage lasts beyond death, so do not recognize divorce. Protestants generally believe that marriage is for the love between a man and woman. Buddhism does not have religious rules for marriage and allow people to follow the civil laws where they live.

In the United States, governments undertake to regulate marriage by providing certain rules and rights to married people under the law. For example, most states provide a minimum age limit to get married and limit the number of people to the marriages. Some states allow for common law marriages and other states do not. Some states provide restrictions on the familial relations that are permitted to marry.

Other governmental regulations by US States on marriage have changed over time. One law that existed regarding marriage that came under fire in the late 1960’s involved laws that prohibited couples of different races from getting married. These laws were declared unconstitutional in 1967 in the case of Loving v. Virginia, 288 U.S. 1 (1967).

Likewise, many states had “head and master” laws that prohibited married women from owning property. The husband could buy, sell and encumber property without the knowledge or consent of the wife. In 1981, the U.S. Supreme Court declared these marriage laws unconstitutional in Kirchberg v. Feenstra, 450 U.S. 455 (1981). In Texas, until the Marital Property Act of 1967, women were required to get a husband’s signature just to file a legal document. Louise Raggio, a Texas attorney and trail blazer for women’s rights sums up the situation of a woman at the altar in Texas: “When a man and woman got married, they were one, and he was the one.” The passing of the Marital Property Act, largely pushed ahead by Mrs. Raggio, gave women in Texas equal rights to their husbands, eliminating years of legal discrimination to married Texas women.

Now, most recently, the definition of marriage has changed once again. The Obergefell decision extends the right to civil marriage to same-sex couples, giving same-sex couples equal rights under the law as heteroseuxals. Now, states cannot deny a same-sex couple the right to marry that is extended to heterosexual couples. This is not the first time in U.S. history that the legal definition of marriage has changed. As the values of society change, the laws of society must change. And, for same-sex couples, that change has arrived.

Now, instead of distinguishing between heterosexual marriage and same-sex marriage — it is just marriage.