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Does the Prop 8 Ruling Make the Case for Ending Marital Privilege?

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"California's obligation is to treat its citizens equally." That's what Judge Vaughn Walker wrote as he overturned Proposition 8. With that, he proclaimed that same-sex couples could no longer be banned from marrying. I wonder whether he also made the case against privileging married people over singles.

Marital privilege is a matter of giving benefits, rights, and privileges to some people rather than others because some are married and others are not. The key criterion and the sole criterion is legal marriage. It doesn't matter whether yours is a same-sex marriage or not. It doesn't matter if your marriage includes kids or not. We're not talking about caring for people -- kids or not -- who cannot care for themselves. We're just talking marriage.

I. The Ruling Extends Marital Privilege to Same-Sex Couples, But It Allows Discrimination Against Single People to Continue

Judge Walker ruled that you shouldn't have to be a certain kind of couple in order to have access to the many benefits that legal marriage bestows. But if "California's obligation is to treat its citizens equally," then why should you have to be part of any kind of couple to qualify? Why should California (or any other state or the federal government) continue to treat single people as second-class citizens?

Consider, for example, these excerpts from point #36 (on p. 68) of the ruling:

36. States and the federal government channel benefits, rights and responsibilities through marital status...

a. Specific tangible economic harms flow from being unable to marry, including lack of access to health insurance and other employment benefits, higher income taxes and taxes on domestic partner benefits

b. the Social Security Act had 'a very distinct marital advantage for those who were married couples as compared to either single individuals or unmarried couples'

c. Research identified 'a total of 1138 federal statutory provisions...in which marital status is a factor in determining or receiving benefits, rights, and privileges.'

My question is this: Why should coupled people, but not single people, have greater access to health insurance, employment benefits, or anything else simply because they are coupled? Why is it that single people, who make the same payments into Social Security as their married colleagues, cannot then leave their benefits to others? Why can't other people will their Social Security benefits to single people? Why should 1,138 federal provisions single out married people for special status?

Why can't all citizens be equal under the law?

II. The Ruling Condemns Legislation Based on Stereotypes and Private Moral Views, But Perpetuates Stereotypes and Private Moral Views in which Married People are Regarded as Superior to Single People

Judge Walker said that the Prop 8 proponents were making arguments based on stereotypes and that "no evidence supports these stereotypes." He insisted that "a private moral view that same-sex couples are inferior to opposite-sex couples is not a proper basis for legislation."

Fine. I agree. Prejudice and private moral views should not be the grounds for legislation. But I think that the 136-page ruling also includes a number of private moral views in which married people are seen as superior to single people. I think it includes stereotypes of single people and those stereotypes are not true, either.

The Judge maintained that when same-sex couples have access only to domestic partnerships and not to marriage, they are seen and treated as inferior to married couples. That's not fair. But married people are also viewed as superior to single people. (Lots of data document that prejudice.) The ruling lets married people continue to be treated better than single people. That's not fair, either. As noted in the ruling (p. 85, #58f), "Laws are perhaps the strongest of social structures that uphold and enforce stigma."

Here are some of the matrimaniacal claims quoted in the ruling.

From p. 81, on why marriage is better than domestic partnerships (quote is from Peplau):

"I have great confidence that some of the things that come from marriage, believing that you are part of the first class kind of relationship in this country, that you are...in the status of relationships that this society most values, most esteems, considers the most legitimate and the most appropriate, undoubtedly has benefits that are not part of domestic partnerships."

On the same topic (marriage vs. domestic partnerships), p. 82, quoting Perry (a plaintiff):

"When you are married, 'you are honored and respected by your family.'"

On p. 79, #50b lists some of the benefits reported by same-sex couples in Massachusetts. They include

"more acceptance from extended family, less worry over legal problems, greater access to health benefits and benefits for their children."

What legal problems do single people have to worry about? Have you been following the same-sex marriage debate? Then you know the answers. To have a partner granted hospital visitation rights, or power of attorney, or any of a long list of other accommodations that are part of the marital bundle (at no extra charge), GLBT individuals need to pay for the relevant legal documents and worry about whether all eventualities are covered. Well, the same is true of single people. If they want, say, a friend to have hospital visitation rights or power of attorney or anything else, they, too, need to pay for the relevant legal documents and worry about whether all eventualities are covered.

III. Really? Science Shows that Married People Are Healthier and Happier, and their Kids Are Better Off? There's Truthiness in those Claims

Look at p. 69, #38, and you will find claims such as these:

Married people "are physically healthier. They tend to live longer. They engage in fewer risky behaviors...[They are] less likely to have psychological distress" than people who are not married.

This is, indeed, the conventional wisdom, and for years, I've been trying to explain what's wrong with it. I'll summarize the basics here, then refer you to more detailed discussions of the scientific reasoning and critiques of individual studies and claims.

Claims that married people are better than unmarried people are typically based on studies in which people who are currently married are compared to people who are currently not married. So if you look at people who are currently married, you may find, in some studies, that they are healthier or happier or experiencing less distress than people who are, say, divorced or widowed. Now here's where the truthiness comes in. The implication that is drawn from those studies is that if you were to get married, you would become healthier or happier or less distressed, too. But the studies do not compare everyone who ever got married to everyone else. Instead, they remove from the married group all of those people (more than 40%) who got married, hated it, and then got divorced. So what these studies really show is this: If you take all of the people who ever got married and remove from that group more than 40% of them who later got unmarried, then the people who are left look better than the others. (Sometimes.) Oh, and when you compare the currently married to the people who have always been single, include all of the single people. Don't remove the 40% or so who are least happy with their single life.

There's much more to my critique of the claims about the supposed superiority of married people. See especially Chapter 2 of Singled Out. There's an excerpt here. The misrepresentations about the children of married couples are critiqued in Chapter 9 of Singled Out.

Critiques of relevant studies that were published after Singled Out was in print are in Single with Attitude, in the section called "If marriage were a drug, the FDA would not approve it." I posted another critique, with lots of relevant links, here at the Huffington Post.

Here are some critiques of specific studies and claims:

Judge Walker's ruling can stand without the misleading scientific claims.

IV. Bottom Line

Let me be clear. I don't think same-sex couples should be excluded from the treasure trove of rights, benefits, and privileges currently accorded only to married heterosexual couples. But I don't think single people should be excluded, either. Remember, the ruling is not about caring for children or any other dependents who cannot care for themselves. Whether care-givers should have special considerations is a separate issue. My issue is marital status. That status should not divide citizens into a privileged class and an inferior class. We should all be equal under the law.

[Note: I'm now blogging at my personal blog, Bella DePaulo's blog. I also continue to write the Living Single blog for Psychology Today.]

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