State of the Union

Marital Completionism: A Bad Model for Thruples and Couples Alike

Why assume you need to make compromises to achieve connubial bliss?

In an article for The Atlantic, Olga Khazan profiles several polyamorous couples and wonders whether more families should consider open (non-monogamous) marriages. Khazan argues that polyamory’s great advantage is that practitioners better divide up and delegate the duties and pleasures of a relationship, mixing and matching for the best of all possible marriages. She writes:

Even many devout monogamists admit that it can be hard for one partner to supply the full smorgasbord of the other’s sexual and emotional needs. When critics decry polys as escapists who have simply “gotten bored” in traditional relationships, polys counter that the more people they can draw close to them, the more self-actualized they can be.

There’s an enormous assumption tucked into that first sentence. Monogamy isn’t premised on the idea that one person can ever be everything to a partner. When a marriage fails to fulfill “the full smorgasbord” it’s not a sign that anything’s wrong. An expectation that a partner (or full set of them) is meant to be a perfect complement is destructive to romantic and platonic relationships.

Unfortunately, the premises of Khazan aren’t confined to a negligible niche (polyamorous or otherwise). A survey commissioned by USA Network of 18-34 year olds in four cities (Austin, Omaha, Nashville, and Phoenix) found that 10 percent of respondents endorsed multiple partners within a marriage, “each of whom fulfills a need in your life.”

What does this mean in practice? One of the women profiled in the Atlantic story explains that she and her husband looked to add partners to their marriages because the spouses couldn’t fulfill all of each other’s needs. Her husband was interested in kinky sex, so he found a woman to practice BDSM with him, but the wife’s new boyfriend was picked for a more prosaic need: the boyfriend goes to the theatre with her and sees shows her husband wouldn’t enjoy.

The reporter asks what she calls “the logical, mono-normative question” why the wife didn’t simply leave her husband for her theatre-boyfriend, but the more relevant question is: why she didn’t just book season tickets for herself and a friend? Kinky sex is, well, sexual, but going out to the theatre isn’t an activity that’s reserved to lovers.

It’s natural for friends to fill the gaps in a marital relationship, indulging interests that aren’t shared with the spouse, providing emotional support, and simply varying our lens on the world. After all, C.S. Lewis’s observation in The Four Loves that “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other. Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest,” wasn’t meant as an aspirational image for spouses.

Spouses shouldn’t wind up completely sated by a relationship, able to retreat from the rest of the world. Married people, just like singles, have some needs that are best met by a friend or by a neighbor or by family. Our mutual, unsated needs draw us together in service to each other. Read More…

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Our Starved for Touch Culture

When did the Friendzone become such a terrible place to live?

In the wake of the Santa Barbara shootings, the unpleasant underbelly of the pickup artist community (PUA), involuntary celibates (incels), and other unhealthy refuges for lonely men have drawn scrutiny and condemnation. They describe themselves as exiles; in the case of the Isla Vista shooter, he decided to destroy the world he couldn’t enter, instead of building something new outside it.

Their sense of exclusion is exacerbated by the stories we tell about sex as a prize you can earn and the tendency of the media to shame sexual inexperience (The Daily Mail referred to the shooter as “The Virgin Killer,” implicitly agreeing that his sexual exploits, or lack thereof, defined him). It is also exacerbated by the stories we don’t tell about friendship and platonic love.

The friendzone is treated as a wasteland not just because we treat sex as an idol, but because friendship and non-sexual affection is written off as irrelevant. Casual dating has been replaced by casual sex; platonic touch has been eclipsed by erotic signalling. Pickup artists teach their pupils (not inaccurately) that taking someone’s hand, touching a shoulder, or even moving into one-on-one conversations are indications of interest, and a signal to keep escalating, in the hopes of transitioning to a hookup.

If affection is merely foreplay, then a person who isn’t having luck approaching people romantically is also cut off from most normal human comforts. That kind of isolation is tremendously harmful.

In the 1960s, Harry Harlow conducted a famous series of experiments in which he gave infant monkeys a choice between mother-substitutes made of cloth or wire. Even when it was only the wire “mother” that fed the monkeys, they came to it only to eat, and clung to the cloth mothers that gave sustenance of a different sort. The monkeys who were only given wire mothers were more skittish and would cling to their cloth diapers as the only source of soft contact in their cage.

Some men and women feel that they’ve wound up in a wire monkey world. In an essay for The Good Men project (“The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer”), Mark Greene talked about how isolated he was from others, until he had a child to take care of:

How often do men actually get the opportunity to express affection through long lasting platonic touch? How often does it happen between men? Or between men and women? Not a hand shake or a hug, but lasting physical contact between two people that is comforting and personal but not sexual. Between persons who are not lovers and never will be. Think, holding hands. Or leaning on each other. Sitting together. That sort of thing. Just the comfort of contact. … I found this kind of physical connection when my son was born. As a stay at home dad, I spent years with my son. Day after day, he sat in the crook of my arm, his little arm across my shoulder, his hand on the back of my neck. As he surveyed the world from on high, I came to know a level of contentment and calm that had heretofore been missing in my life.

The isolation may be more pronounced for men, since physical contact between two women is less likely to be stigmatized or even remarked upon. In my own experience, however, usually the only time I make physical contact with another person is when I shake the priest’s hand on my way out of Mass. When I went on a cultural exchange trip to China, I was surprised and jealous when our group leader warned us that friends commonly hold hands in China, and we shouldn’t assume a host was flirting with us if they did so.

In America, that kind of physical affection would be unusual between pairs of friends, especially if both were male. But, if friends are off limits, where else are people to turn for physical reassurance? Read More…

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Amazon’s War Is First in a Series

amazon delay

In an effort to get publisher Hachette to agree to give Amazon a larger cut of their profits, the web giant has begun playing hardball. First, Amazon listed Hachette books as delayed, informing customers that they’d be waiting three to four weeks for them, instead of the customary two days, and wouldn’t they prefer to read something else?

Then, the fight escalated, and Amazon listed some Hachette books as completely unavailable while marking up others and pushing customers toward “similar items at a lower price.” While Hachette authors (including this website’s Rod Dreher) complain, creators and consumers find themselves with limited power to affect the outcome of the dispute. Unfortunately, this struggle could become the first in a series.

The problem isn’t that Amazon wants to make more money, but the heavy-handed tactics they are using to force Hachette to the bargaining table, which may become more common if the FCC doesn’t find a way to preserve net neutrality. Net neutrality is the current status quo online, where all data comes to you at about the same speed. For example, if your internet service provider (ISP) is Comcast, they aren’t allowed to slow down all news sites besides NBC (which they own) in an effort to get you to change your media consumption habits.

The FCC is considering new rules for net neutrality, including the possibility of scrapping it all together. If the old rules are thrown out, customers will have to rely on market forces, not regulation, to limit corporate chicanery. But, as Amazon’s war of attrition with Hachette suggests, ordinary consumers have a limited ability to force a marketplace to stay open to all.

Consumers have more power to punish Amazon than an internet service provider. Striking back against the retailer means placing your order somewhere else or cancelling your Prime membership. Punishing your ISP is an all or nothing affair, and switching providers means spending the day at home waiting for the cable guy. That’s if you have the power to change at all, since many apartment dwellers are stuck with whichever company the landlord lets into the building, and years of crony capitalism have established regional monopolies at larger scales. An ISP would need to behave truly egregiously to lose customers.

The Hachette authors whose books are debuting now are being hamstrung by the current conflict; a reader who sees an interesting review, clicks over to Amazon, and closes the tab once she sees the book isn’t available probably won’t end up buying the book, enjoying it, and recommending it to her friends. Websites and online services similarly depend on word of mouth to jumpstart their growth, which becomes more unlikely as the loading bar lengthens.

Hachette is an established company, with a stable of eloquent clients, who are used to pleading their case in writing. The web companies that will be hurt by the end of net neutrality are less likely to have Hachette’s ability to attract headlines. If they fail to propitiate the ISPs that serve your neighborhood, you’ll probably never hear of them to miss them.

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Treating Heartbreak With a Pill

Instead of comforting a friend after a break up with ice cream and a movie, bioethicist Brian D. Earp foresees the possibility of an anti-love drug, which could nip those regretful feelings in the bud.

Drawing on research in neuroscience, endocrinology, and psychology, he anticipates a toned down version of the chemical castration cocktail that is offered to pedophiles today. His paper isn’t science-fiction speculation; he cites antidepressants and other existing drugs that could be repurposed for their anti-romantic side effects.

Earp subdivides love into three components: lust (the desire to have sex with the beloved), attraction (frequent, even obsessive thoughts about the beloved), and attachment (feeling of security with the beloved, anxiety without), and puts together a literature review of possible interventions to short-circuit any of these feelings or a combination thereof.

Omitted from Earp’s taxonomy of love is agape—the love that desires nothing above the good of the beloved, and does not require anything in return. Earp’s interventions all focus on suppressing or dampening the experience of lust, attraction, or attachment, but not on sublimating them into an expression of the higher love of agape. If a patient chose to forgo medical treatment, Earp imagines he or she would address the problem by ”focusing on the loved one’s faults, … deleting all of her emails,” still focusing on expunging love rather than transfiguring it.

Among the pathological loves Earp lists that might merit these medical erasures are:

  • Romantic love for someone other than one’s spouse.
  • Love of a battered woman or man for the abuser.
  • Unrequited love that leads to despair or suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
  • Incestuous love.
  • Love for a cult leader

In these circumstances, and others like them, Earp concludes that “the individual, voluntary use of anti-love biotechnology … could be justified or even morally required.” Earp circumscribes this moral imperative to mean that it would be morally wrong to interfere with a person choosing treatment, not that it would be immoral to refuse it, but it is worth noting that most of the examples that Earp cites are ones where the lover would not want to take the drugs, at least initially.

An individual’s choice will be shaped by the soft coercion of friends, family, and society deciding it’s finally time to intervene. Just as voluntary euthanasia has drawn criticism for the potential for weak groups (women, the elderly, the disabled) to feel pressured to die “altruistically” so as not to become a burden, anti-love drugs might create a new social responsibility for the romantically bereft to take their medicine and move on. Read More…

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When the Pursuit of Health Turns Pathological

This is likely to be a record-setting year in baseball. Players are on track to eclipse the number of Tommy John surgeries ever performed in a year, breaking 2012′s old record of 69 operations across the major and minor leagues. Despite efforts to rest pitchers and reduce the rate of elbow injury, surgeries are still spiking. The surgery has gained such an aura of inevitability that one cause for its prevalence may be pitchers’ expectation that they’ll go under the knife sooner or later. Brian Wilson, a reliever with the Dodgers, told the New York Times, “[N]ow people are getting Tommy John with the slightest tear. … It’s very precautious.”

As baseball struggles to emerge from the taint of the steroid era, the rise of Tommy John surgery has mostly been treated as a problem of players’ health, but the normalizing of this kind of repair points to a similar problem with the way players strain to meet impossible expectations of their bodies.

Tommy John surgery may have escaped the stigma of “cheating” because, although surgery is invasive, the procedure seems intuitively more natural than popping pills. Instead of introducing a foreign substance to the body, the surgery replaces a pitcher’s ulnar collateral ligament with one of his own tendons from elsewhere in the body. It’s more like using skin grafts to cover a burn than slathering on steroid cream. Of course, it also bears a more than passing resemblance to adulterating your blood with your own blood, as Lance Armstrong and his teammates did.

Why doesn’t Tommy John surgery draw comparisons to doping? The surgery isn’t just more natural with respect to its methods, but also in terms of its aims. Although some baseball players believe that they’ll come back stronger from the procedure, the goal isn’t to augment the player’s pitching, but to repair an injury. The players are being returned to natural health, not pushed past normal (well, normal for a pro athlete) ability. The surgery passes the same test as double-amputee Oscar Pistorius’s carbon fiber legs—acceptable as long as they don’t make him better than he was with his original, flesh and blood legs.

Although the surgeries may simply restore pitchers to their pre-injury abilities, there is something about them that does fly in the face of the natural order. Of the 80 percent of pitchers who return to form, some will be re-injured and repatched. The cycle of injury, surgery, re-injury, new surgery treats the human body like one of Henry Ford’s cars; plentifully stocked with swappable parts. The damage is treated less like a wound and more like an ordinary part of work. Read More…

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The Rights and Responsibilities of Search Engine Users

While truth has usually been a defense to charges of libel, Google is running into a higher standard in Europe. The European Union Court of Justice, considering the threat that Google can pose to privacy, seems to be applying a standard closer to the “Is it True? Is it Kind? Is it Necessary?” test.

In the press release announcing their decision, the European Court ruling found that Google was trampling on a right to be forgotten. Even if the information Google was linking to was accurate and lawfully published, Google and other search engines could be at fault for making that information too easy to find. Google wouldn’t have to purge this information preemptively, just in response to complaints, but, still, acceding to this ruling would still be tremendously difficult.

Google is already engaged in one enormous curation problem: policing content uploaded to YouTube. Although algorithms can detect piracy and copyright infringement, detecting obscenity still relies on the “I know it when I see it” test, which requires a human viewer. Google contractors have to watch content flagged as abusive, violent, or obscene in order to rule it in or out. Screening links for “relevance” would be emotionally easier than taking a shift in the YouTube curatorial department, but the judgement calls will be a lot harder to defend.

Google’s leadership presumably would like to avoid being dragged into culture fights, especially when only one month ago they faced controversy over the decision to purge ads for crisis pregnancy centers from searches related to abortion. But the European ruling could force them to play referee on a host of new issues. Google (in partnership with a European court) would now be expected to assess the relevance of any information and the prominence of the person filing.

Would Google have a duty to keep abreast of the employment history of the people asking to be removed from searches? If not, people just on the cusp of prominence might file general takedowns, to avoid the fate of the Benham brothers. Their show on HGTV was cancelled before it began when their Google histories of anti-gay marriage and anti-Islam activism caught up with them. Asking Google to manage your online identity would still be easier than the solution that former Google CEO Eric Schmidt once proposed: declare identity bankruptcy and legally change your name to escape your search results.

If Europe has an expansive view of the right to be forgotten, America has a sprawling understanding of the right to information. Anything that enters the public sphere, even phone calls recorded illegally, can be fair game for public comment and calls to action. Simply leaving your house and going to WalMart is enough to put you in the public eye as a public figure to be discussed and disparaged on People of Walmart.

Just because information is easy to come by, through Google or any other source, doesn’t exempt us from responsibility for seeking it out and acting upon it. Instead of depending on a right to be forgotten, our society is healthier when people choose to avert their eyes or look with charity.

The solution may not be for Google to become a curator but for searchers to learn to practice better custody of the eyes. After all, hasn’t the internet age taught us that large duties are easier to handle when they’re crowdsourced?

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Save Smallpox, Not Pandas

San Diego can give up its hopes of producing a sister panda cub to Washington D.C.’s Bao Bao in the near future. Both of the San Diego Zoo’s pandas have encountered health issues that make it unlikely that either will work as half of a breeding pair again. The male panda has lost one testicle to cancer and has a heart condition; the female has probably hit menopause.

Of course, these new setbacks only represent a marginal increase in difficulty for the breeding program; the major obstacle remains the pandas themselves. San Diego’s pair are the only pandas in the United States who have managed to reproduce naturally. Zoos appear to have stocked their pens with pandas of the Bartleby variety, who would prefer not to reproduce, despite zookeepers attempts to show the pandas porn, artificially inseminate pandas with the sperm of deceased males, and even build obstacles into the panda pens, in the hopes that the female will trip over them and fall into proper breeding position.

Even when these attempts succeed, pandas have a tendency to neglect or accidentally suffocate the cubs they manage to produce. The baby pandas that survive remain the property of the Chinese government, forcing a kind of sterility on any panda breeding project.

While we struggle to keep captive pandas alive, next week the World Health Organization will decide whether to definitively wipe another species from the earth, one considerably more dangerous. On May 19th, the WHO will vote on a recommendation that Russia and the United States destroy their remaining stores of smallpox. Smallpox has been completely eradicated, so, if the samples were destroyed, it would be nearly impossible for the disease to ever recur as the result of accidental breach or bioterrorism. However, destroying the disease stocks would preclude any further research.

Peter Jahrling, the chief scientist at the National Institute of Health’s NIAID Integrated Research Facility has been using our national stores of smallpox to infect monkeys with the disease, in order to develop new vaccines for humans. His research, and that of other scientists trying to learn how to contain this and similar plagues, would be cancelled if the smallpox reserves were destroyed.

There is no smallpox equivalent of the panda cams; almost no one can quickly picture the delicate, football-shaped smallpox capsids in the way we can call up images of roly-poly pandas. Smallpox preservation is plainly intended to serve the good of humans alone, and no larger environmental cause. There’s nothing particularly noble or aesthetically compelling about the cause.

Panda preservation should fall into the same category. Zoos are not conserving the panda for the sake of the panda but for the entertainment of the human spectators. Pandas in captivity could not sustain themselves, and there is little hope they can be trained to carry on their species without intervention. Any conservationist who praises themselves for “saving” the panda must recognize that the zoo breeding programs do little more than animate the corpse of the species.

The smallpox stockpiles fall more naturally under the the project of “conservation” than that of panda preservation. Smallpox reserves and research are meant to conserve the existence of humans. Pandas are more similar to the destructively bred bulldog, which also is incapable of reproducing on its own. If zoos wish to keep pandas around, they should admit it is for the sake of humans, not the pandas themselves.

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Polio Breaks Out After the U.S. Breaks Trust

President Roosevelt dining with polio patients at Warm Springs, Georgia
President Roosevelt dining with polio patients at Warm Springs, Georgia

Only two diseases have ever been completely eradicated worldwide: smallpox and rinderpest. But hopes for eradicating a third have dimmed with the World Health Organization’s announcement that the spread of polio has become a global health emergency.

After over 25 years of eradication campaigns, polio had been beaten back into only a handful of countries, and, by 2012, polio was eliminated or in sharp decline in all but three countries: Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Nigeria. But, as the virus has come roaring back, the WHO has set travel restrictions on new hotspots. Residents of Pakistan, Syria, and Cameroon are advised not to leave their countries unless they have been vaccinated against the disease and cannot carry it beyond their borders.

Pakistan is the cradle of the resurgent polio. Of the 74 cases of wild polio reported this year to date, 59 occurred in Pakistan. The increasing prevalence isn’t due to a new mutation or drug resistance; the resistance is coming from the Pakistani people, not the microorganisms that live inside them.

The vaccinators lost moral credibility when, in order to confirm the identity of Bin Laden prior to his assassination, the United States ran a fake hepatitis vaccination campaign in Abbottabad. Although doctors claimed they were going door to door to give inoculations, the blood draws they conducted were used for DNA tests discover whether any relatives of Bin Laden were living in town.

After Seal Team Six carried out their mission, some Taliban leaders banned vaccinations in the regions under their control and over a dozen vaccinators were murdered, forcing Pakistan to put its eradication campaign on hold. The doctor who conducted the operation was arrested by Pakistan’s own intelligence agency and held on charges of treason.

The doctor was accused of betraying his country to serve another government, but the United States itself came under fire for betraying the medical community and putting public health at risk. Scientific American excoriated the United States for disrupting and profaning a historically neutral and altruistic profession. Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors without Borders) said that the CIA operation was a “grave manipulation of the medical act” and endangered the lifesaving work doctors conducted around the globe.

If doctors could be spies in disguise, how could nations welcome them in? In Syria, where polio is spreading amid the chaos of the civil war, how can vaccinators persuade Assad to let them move freely within the country, if they could be doubling as spies, assassins, or gun runners? Read More…

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History Hidden as Hologram

Sculpture in Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Israel Bernhard Richter /
Sculpture in Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, Israel Bernhard Richter /

The technology that lets directors animate a CGI dragon with Benedict Cumberbatch’s snarls, or tweak the nuances of an Marlon Brando’s expressions in post-production is complicating the idea of primary source documents.

Paul Debevec, of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technology, has taken on some philanthropic work as an addition to his work on big-budget Hollywood projects. Debevec has partnered with the U.S.C. Shoah Foundation to record holographic oral histories from Holocaust survivors. But, in Debevec’s vision, these recordings wouldn’t be static. As he told The New Yorker, he plans for them to be interactive.

Soon, Debevec said, the digital version of [Pinchas] Gutter could be projected into a classroom and questioned by students. The holographic replica could draw on the archive of interviews to answer almost any question relevant to Gutter’s personal history; it could also deflect off-the-wall queries. As Debevec and his colleagues envisaged it, Gutter would be answering questions about the Holocaust long after he was dead.

The New Yorker profile points out that this isn’t as large a leap as it might sound. When Thomas Edison designed his wax cylindrical records–the forerunners of today’s MP3s–he imagined they might be used to tape the last words of a dying relative and to play back their final blessings for years to come.

However, a sound recording or a static picture is more clearly a snapshot of a deceased person than the proposed hologram would be. The responsiveness of Gutter’s simulacra is what chips away at his authenticity. The researchers in the article say that the Gutter displayed could wind up with the same kind of conversational fluency as Siri or any other chatbot.

When students go off-script, and ask the ghost of Gutter questions he never answered in his oral history, they will still receive answers, but their partner will have become the program that animates his face, not the record that the man left in life. And just as Siri is updated to make it easy for the user to pose questions in colloquial language, Gutter’s curators and guardians may “help” him by allowing him to reply to questions he never could have understood, phrased in the slang of times to come.

The extraordinary flexibility of the hologram and modelling technology also allow museum-keepers to update the replies Gutter offers. Once the simulation software has enough footage, it can invent or alter expressions or sync up new animations to new audio. A virtual Gutter could be changed to make reference to events that happened after his death, so that visitors would have an easier time translating his experience into their frame of reference. The animators could even make subtle changes to Gutter’s affect as he repeats the answers he recorded in life, to match the norms of the day. The levers exist, and it’s hard to imagine they’ll never be used. Read More…

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Drop Those Wedding Rings in the Name of the Law

Most gay marriage lawsuits have been brought by couples, but, in North Carolina, it’s the clergy filing suit. Ministers from the United Church of Christ are going to federal court to claim that the state’s gay marriage ban encroaches on their religious liberty: North Carolina not only bans same-sex weddings at the courthouse, but holds ministers and other people authorized to conduct weddings liable if they perform unauthorized marriages.

The New York Times characterized the suit as “a novel legal attack on a state’s same-sex marriage ban” and Time noted that it was the “first time for a national Christian denomination to sue in favor of same-sex marriage.” The UCC suit is a hybrid case, which folds in some familiar claims about an intrinsic right to gay marriage into its religious liberty claims. If the North Carolina ban falls, it will likely be due to the familiar claims brought by the couples, not the novel religious liberty claims made by their pastors.

The suit has three sets of plaintiffs, making two different types of arguments. The first two classes of plaintiffs are the church itself and its ministers, both of whom are making a religious liberty claim about their ability to conduct marriages ceremonies in their churches. The third class is the gay couples themselves who are making both a religious liberty claim about church weddings as well as an equal protection and due process claim against the state’s ban on the legal recognition of gay marriages, which more closely resembles previous suits.

The North Carolina gay marriage amendment (passed as Amendment One, incorporated into the state constitution as Article XIV, Section 6) doesn’t limit religious liberty. The amendment does not make it illegal for same-sex couples to have private, unofficial marriage ceremonies, or to set up legal contracts to approximate the full rights and privileges of marriage as closely as they can. The amendment states:

Marriage between one man and one woman is the only domestic legal union that shall be valid or recognized in this State. This section does not prohibit a private party from entering into contracts with another private party; nor does this section prohibit courts from adjudicating the rights of private parties pursuant to such contracts.

A private ceremony becomes a crime if the officiant has been empowered by the state to conduct legal marriages. If a minister presides at one of these legally invalid marriages as forbidden by § 51-6, “No minister, officer, or any other person authorized to solemnize a marriage under the laws of this State shall perform a ceremony of marriage between a man and woman, or shall declare them to be husband and wife, until there is delivered to that person a license for the marriage of the said persons,” he or she can be fined up to $200 per couple, according to state statute § 51-7.

This restriction is part of North Carolina’s general code, and predates the gay marriage amendment. It is the law being contested under religious liberty claims. However, it’s less an anti-gay marriage provision than an anti-fraud law. The statute is the legal equivalent of banning notaries public from witnessing and stamping invalid or unofficial contracts, even if they promise to use a unofficial stamp. As long as they’re going through the same motions and procedures as when they conduct official state business, there’s the possibility for confusion. Read More…

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