Legal marriage is based on contract law. When you marry, you enter into an agreement with your spouse to create a life union. Although many people hold marriage ceremonies in churches, mosques or synagogues, you must obtain a state marriage license for the marriage to be legal.
Your religious beliefs about marriage may differ from the legal definition. No matter what your religious views might be, the only marital rights you have in court are those recognized by the state.
Marriage Is a Constitutional Right
The U.S. Constitution is the highest law in the country. It gives adult men and women the freedom to marry. States generally cannot interfere with this right. In the 1960s, Virginia tried to stop interracial marriage, but the law was thrown out because it was illegal under the Constitution. A similar controversy is playing out today.
The Constitutional does not grant gay couples the right to marry, but some states such as Massachusetts have gone beyond the Constitution by making gay marriage legal. States have the legal power to expand the definition of marriage, but the state cannot take away fundamental rights given by the Constitution.
Marriage Offers Financial Protection
Married couples enjoy many legal protections, especially in financial matters. For example, a surviving spouse has certain rights to collect on a deceased spouse's Social Security. If a married person dies without a will, state laws usually give the surviving spouse most or all of the deceased person's estate. If you divorce, the law divides marital property between you and your spouse, although the exact manner of division varies from one state to another. Unmarried couples generally do not have these special financial rights.
Marriage, Medicine and Burial
Marriage gives husbands and wives special rights that extend to medical care and end-of-life decisions. A hospital must allow you to visit your sick or injured spouse. If your spouse is unable to make medical decisions, the law generally allows you to make those decisions. In some states, the law allows you to take time off from work to care for a sick or injured spouse. You can also make cremation, burial and memorial arrangements for your spouse.
Religious Beliefs and Marriage
In many religions, marriage is a sacred vow. But church law and state law can be very different. For example, the Catholic Church is opposed to gay marriage, but it is now legal in some states. Islamic law may allow a man to have more than one wife, but no state in the United States allows a person to be married to more than one individual at a time. Divorce is allowed in every state; but some religious faiths do not sanction divorce.