A little more than a decade ago, public support for same-sex marriage was virtually non-existent. The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as a union between a man and woman, passed in the U.S. Senate with an 85-14 vote. Since then, attitudes toward the subject have changed dramatically. It’s time to recognize this shift, but not by legalizing same-sex marriage on the federal or state level. Marriage is a religious institution, not a civil one, and the federal government should abolish legal recognition of it accordingly.

The pious right often protests that marriage is a holy covenant between a man and a woman. It argues that gay marriage would violate and threaten a sacred institution. While I certainly don’t believe it would, one can understand the right’s perspective on this matter. Rather than force it by law to accept the equal status of other human beings, we should simply remove the question. One can’t challenge gay marriage if there is no official recognition of marriage at all.

Marriage is an institution that should be sanctified by a higher power — not the federal government. Yet it’s used by the courts to resolve questions of tax dependency, health benefits, visitation rights and custody. These very tangible things are what some same-sex couples often seek through gay marriage. It shouldn’t be this way. Writing for the online publication Slate in 2003, Michael Kinsley argued that “marriage functions as…a ‘bright line’” for the legal system. In essence, grappling with tough legal questions like the ones above without the institution of marriage will mean a more equitable arrangement of rights and benefits.

Many people who support civil unions for same-sex couples don’t support same-sex marriage. They consider marriage to be a traditional religious covenant between a male and a female. Yet they still feel gay and lesbian couples should receive the legal benefits accorded to married couples. But to say that marriages and civil unions both bear the same legal rights, and yet to continue to distinguish between them, would be to operate under a separate but equal pretense. And since the doctrine of separate but equal was deemed unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education, civil unions would be essentially unconstitutional.

The debate over same-sex marriage is cited by many politicians as part of an alleged “culture war” that dominates contemporary electoral discourse. This debate wastes the valuable breath of our politicians. Rather than address serious problems, such as unemployment, prolific budgetary waste, inflation and drug policy, they pontificate about morality and virtue. Many politicians prefer this state of affairs. This is because they don’t actually need to posit solutions to voters to obtain votes but only need to promise that they will fight the supposed “gay agenda.” If we abolish marriage as a federal institution, we’ll take the steam out of these distracting politics of fear.

This isn’t meant as an attack on marriage, and it’s not a simplistically libertarian critique of government intercession in private life. But there’s no reason for the federal government to officially recognize the practice. It’s not the best way to determine child custody, the allocation of health care benefits or much else. The war over same-sex marriage has been hijacked from a plea for human rights to a political sideshow meant to sate an anxious public in a time of social uncertainty. The federal government shouldn’t involve itself in an institution that is both religious and deeply personal. Let marriage be what it is — a formal declaration of love and faith, not a tax break.

Jordan Birnholtz is an LSA freshman.

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