"The recent report of a Census Bureau survey found that married-couple households in the U.S. are now outnumbered. A hair more than half — 50.3 percent — of households are headed by unmarried people, and 31.7 percent of American children are being raised in unmarried homes."
What does this say about marriage? Calling marriage obsolete is a bit too simplistic. It is still useful in specific circumstances, such as if your partner is unconscious and in the hospital and the doctors need someone to make a decision on treatment, or if only one partner has health insurance through their work. But some of these situations have been legislated out of existence in certain states, largely thanks to accommodations to the gay community.
In effect, by making life easier for gay, non-married couples, we have been undermining marriage.
What about divorce? No doubt stricter divorce laws have had an impact, but I suspect divorce in general has had an impact. How many of us have been through a bad divorce, or known more than a few couples who have been through a bad one? I would not be surprised if 90%+ of Americans can answer that question "yes". When we see the emotional and financial damage left from a nasty divorce, what incentive is there to get married? And for the children of these divorces, there is even less incentive.
Right now, unless you are in a situation with a partner where you will be required to be married under the law in order to receive a specific benefit, the only reason I can think of is income taxes. Is a thousand or so dollars per year in reduced income taxes worth getting married? (Mind you, I am throwing that figure out. I have not actually looked it up. I think it may actually be less than that.) Of course, that is assuming that being married would enable a couple to pay less, which is not often the case. Getting married is only really useful to the tax situation of a "one breadwinner" couple. If both couples work, and both make roughly the same amount, they are likely to push themselves into a higher tax bracket by filing jointly.
Yet again, we see marriage undermined.
What about religion? Most, if not all, religions consider marriage to be sacred. However, I am not aware of ANY religion that requires marriage to be state-sanctioned. If your religion requires you to be married, but your legal situation doesn't, why can't you ONLY be married within your religion? There is nothing legally or theologically making this invalid.
So why get legally married? We have dis-incentivized marriage to the point where it is really only useful in specific situations. Sadly, most of those situations don't apply to the majority of Americans.
At this point in time, I would say to anyone considering marriage (including homosexuals, if they have legal access to marriage) to look at their situation first. If they would actually benefit from it, I say go for it. However, if they can find a way around the marriage benefit (i.e. a properly executed will, or a legal power-of-attorney document), then I would suggest they do so. It is far easier to get legal documents changed than it is to get a divorce.
That having been said, how should we as a society view this? What do we think the purpose of marriage should be? Should we even be sanctioning the institution at all?
I must admit that I find the recent marriage "proposal" (pun intended) by the Washington Defense of Marriage Alliance (WDMA) to be intriguing. According to Initiative 957, which the group has proposed in the state of Washington:
"If passed by Washington voters, the Defense of Marriage Initiative would:
* add the phrase, “who are capable of having children with one another” to the legal definition of marriage;
* require that couples married in Washington file proof of procreation within three years of the date of marriage or have their marriage automatically annulled;
* require that couples married out of state file proof of procreation within three years of the date of marriage or have their marriage classed as “unrecognized;”
* establish a process for filing proof of procreation; and
* make it a criminal act for people in an unrecognized marriage to receive marriage benefits."
While I recognize WDMA's true intent is to get gay marriage legalized, I find this proposal to be a useful starting point for any discussion of marriage. Why should states sanction marriage for the mere purpose of "love"? People will be in love regardless of marriage. Why do states need to encourage something which will happen anyway?
However, procreation is an extremely valid reason for states to provide benefits, although I think adoption should be considered as a reasonable substitute for procreation.
But until we give marriage a truly useful definition, for both couples and society as a whole, then it is nothing more than an obsolete institution which should be removed from government oversight.