Marriage Equality and Family Diversity: Comparative Perspectives from the United States and South Africa
Marriage: Is the Law Working?, GROUNDUP (Mar.
Marriage Equality and Family Diversity: Comparative Perspectives from the United States and South Africa
Holning Lau 0 1
0 Thi s Symposium is brought to you for free and open access by FLASH: The F ordham Law Archive of Scholarship and History. It has been accepted for inclusion in Fordham Law Review by an authorized editor of FLASH: The F ordham Law Archive of Scholarship and History. For more information , please contact
1 University of North Carolina School of Law , USA
Recommended Citation Holning Lau, Marriage Equality and Family Diversity: Comparative Perspectives from the United States and South Africa, 85 Fordham L. Rev. 2615 (2017). Available at: http://ir.lawnet.fordham.edu/flr/vol85/iss6/8
DIVERSITY: COMPARATIVE PERSPECTIVES
FROM THE UNITED STATES AND SOUTH AFRICA
In honor of the fortieth anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision
in Moore v. City of East Cleveland,1 the Fordham Law Review convened a
symposium that examined the extent to which the law protects family
diversity. Moore invalidated a single-family zoning ordinance that barred
extended family members from living together.2 In striking down the
ordinance, the Court trumpeted the right of individuals to decide how to
structure one’s own family.3
This Article contributes to the symposium by exploring the topic of
family diversity through a comparative analysis of law in the United States
and South Africa. Juxtaposing these countries sheds light on shortcomings
of the United States’s jurisprudence on family diversity. The comparative
analysis also helps illuminate the path ahead for reforming both countries’
laws to better respect family diversity.
This Article proceeds in two parts. Part I examines the United States’s
and South Africa’s competing approaches to same-sex marriage. Both
countries’ highest courts ruled that excluding same-sex couples from
marriage is unconstitutional,4 but they took divergent paths to reach that
conclusion. This Article contends that the Constitutional Court of South
Africa paved a better road for other countries to follow because it developed
* Reef C. Ivey II Distinguished Professor of Law & Associate Dean for Faculty
Development, University of North Carolina School of Law. Thank you to Clare Huntington,
Robin Lenhardt, and Danielle Rapaccioli for inviting me to write this Article for the
Fordham Law Review Family Law Symposium entitled Moore Kinship held at Fordham
University School of Law. For an overview of the symposium, see R.A. Lenhardt & Clare
Huntington, Foreword: Moore Kinship, 85 FORDHAM L. REV. 2551 (2017). Thank you to
Hillary Li for research assistance and to my colleague Maxine Eichner for helpful
conversations on this project. I am also grateful for having had the privilege of presenting
parts of this Article at the 2017 Annual Meeting of the Association of American Law
Schools and at the Rutgers Center for Gender, Sexuality, Law and Policy.
1. 431 U.S. 494 (1977).
2. Id. at 495–96.
3. Id. at 504–06; id. at 507–08 (Brennan, J., concurring). Many of the symposium
participants persuasively argued, however, that the Court should have gone further in
articulating support for family diversity.
4. See Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584 (2015); Minister of Home Affairs v.
Fourie 2006 (1) SA 524 (CC) (S. Afr.).
a superior conceptualization of the right to marry. Part II looks beyond
same-sex marriage to explore new frontiers for reforming laws to address
family diversity both in the United States and in South Africa. Specifically,
Part II examines proposals to extend rights and responsibilities to couples
who choose not to marry.
I. COMPETING APPROACHES TO SAME-SEX MARRIAGE
In Obergefell v. Hodges,5 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that excluding
same-sex couples from marriage was unconstitutional.6 Obergefell is
significant not only to the United States but also to other countries around
the world. Boris Dittrich, advocacy director of the LGBT Rights Program
at Human Rights Watch, predicted that Obergefell “will reverberate in
many countries that still deny people the right to marry the person they
love.”7 As countries around the world draw inspiration from Obergefell,
however, they should also look to the South African same-sex marriage
case, Minister of Home Affairs v. Fourie.8 Compared with Obergefell,
Fourie offers a more compelling conceptualization of the relationship
between marriage and dignity.
The Obergefell majority held that bans on same-sex marriage violated
constitutional protections of liberty and equality.9 With respect to liberty,
the Court stated that the bans infringed the fundamental right to marry, thus
violating the Fourteenth Amendment’s protection of substantive due
process.10 The bans also violated equal protection by impermissibly
discriminating against gays and lesbians.11
In discussing the fundamental right to marry, Justice Kennedy’s majority
opinion portrayed marriage as an institution that confers dignity upon those
who enter into it. Justice Kennedy explained that marriage “promise[s]
nobility and dignity to all persons, without regard to their station in life.”12
He further explained that marital dignity applies to same-sex couples as
well as different-sex couples, stating, “There is dignity in the bond between
two men or two women who seek to marry.”13 Justice Kennedy put
marriage on a grandiose pedestal, stating that “marriage is essential to our
most profound hopes and aspirations. . . . [It is] fulfillment in its highest
meaning. . . . No union is more profound than marriage.”14
Moreover, Justice Kennedy suggested that unmarried individuals are to
be pitied. According to Obergefell, “Marriage responds to the universal
fear that a lonely person might call out only to find no one there.”15 As a
result, being unmarried is “be[ing] condemned to live in loneliness,
excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions.”16 Commentators
have criticized Obergefell for implying that people must marry to live
fulfilling and dignified lives.17 The opinion’s emphatic rhetoric
marginalizes people who do not wish to marry and people who simply have
not found the right partner to wed. Obergefell obscures the fact that,
although marriage is indeed a good choice for many couples, it is not right
Nearly a decade before Obergefell, the Constitutional Court of South
Africa ruled in Fourie that depriving same-sex couples of the ability to
marry violated constitutional protections of dignity and equality.19 The
Constitutional Court of South Africa became the first national apex court to
decide that barring same-sex couples from marriage was unconstitutional.20
No other judicial opinion on same-sex marriage has done as well as Fourie
at explaining the relationship between same-sex marriage and dignity.
Justice Albert “Albie” Louis Sachs’s majority opinion in Fourie made
clear that marriage does not dignify couples;21 rather, it is the legal right to
decide whether to marry—and whether to marry someone of the same
sex—that is central to dignity. The court acknowledged that many
samesex couples might choose not to marry if given the opportunity22 and,
instead of denigrating that choice, explained that “what is in issue is not the
decision to be taken, but the choice that is available. If heterosexual
couples have the option of deciding whether to marry or not, so should
same-sex couples have the choice.”23
To the best of my knowledge, Fourie is the only judicial opinion on
same-sex marriage that has explicitly engaged queer and feminist critiques
of marriage.24 The court acknowledged that some same-sex couples may
reject marriage because they perceive marriage as overly conventional,
assimilationist, commercialized, or symbolically tied to stereotypical gender
roles.25 Fourie did not disparage the rejection of marriage; instead, it
explicitly recognized that South Africa has a “multitude of family
formations”26 and is committed to “respect across difference.”27
To be sure, Fourie acknowledged that marriage is extremely meaningful
and of great importance to many people due to its legal and cultural
consequences.28 However, unlike Obergefell, Fourie did not suggest that
individuals become dignified by entering marriage. Whereas Obergefell
located dignity in the institution of marriage itself, Fourie located dignity in
the autonomy to choose whether to marry.29 According to Fourie, denying
same-sex couples this choice strips couples of dignity because it “negate[s]
their right to self-definition in a most profound way.”30 Denying same-sex
couples this freedom also inflicts dignitary injury upon gays and lesbians at
large, not just coupled gays and lesbians, because it reinforces social
perceptions of inferiority.31
In addition, Fourie and Obergefell differ because the Fourie opinion
acknowledged that marriage rights are important precisely because
marriages often fail: “[T]he law of marriage is invoked both at moments of
blissful creation and at times of sad cessation.”32 If a couple is married, the
government will help the couple resolve differences if they break up.33
Divorce is a legal instrument that the government makes available to
24. The court quoted philosopher Cheshire Calhoun:
Queer theorists worry that pursuing marriage rights is assimilationist, because it
rests on the view that it would be better for gay and lesbian relationships to be as
much like traditional heterosexual intimate relationships as possible. To pursue
marriage rights is to reject the value of pursuing possibly more liberating, if less
conventional, sexual, affectional, caretaking, and economic intimate arrangements.
Feminists worry that pursuing marriage rights will have the effect of endorsing
gender-structured heterosexual marriage.
Id. at 553 para. 72 n.81. For a summary of queer and feminist critiques of marriage, see
Suzanne A. Kim, Skeptical Marriage Equality, 34 HARV. J.L. & GENDER 37, 42–47 (2011).
25. Fourie 2006 (1) SA 524 (CC) at 553–54 para. 72.
26. Id. at 548 para. 59.
27. Id. at 549 para. 60; see also id. at 548 para. 59 (“[I]t is inappropriate to entrench any
particular form [of family] as the only socially and legally acceptable one.”).
28. Id. at 550–54 paras. 63–72.
29. Obergefell does briefly acknowledge that choosing whether to marry is an important
decision. See Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 2599 (2015) (noting that “the right to
personal choice regarding marriage is inherent in the concept of individual autonomy”).
This acknowledgement is, however, overshadowed by other parts of Obergefell that glorify
marriage as an institution that confers dignity. See supra notes 12–17 and accompanying
30. Fourie 2006 (1) SA 524 (CC) at 554 para. 72.
31. Id. at 553 para. 71.
32. Id. at 554 para. 73.
married couples. In acknowledging the potential failure of marriages,
Fourie avoids overromanticizing the institution.
The U.S. Supreme Court should have drawn inspiration from Fourie,
extending marriage rights to same-sex couples while also recognizing the
dignity of unmarried people. Instead, Obergefell delivered a conception of
dignity that was much too narrow. In the United States, a growing number
of adults are already choosing not to marry, with marriage rates presently at
an all-time low.34 Roughly half of U.S. adults are now married, whereas
seven out of ten were married in the 1960s.35 Commentators have argued
that U.S. public policies should be adjusted to protect unmarried adults.36
Yet, Obergefell stymies such reforms by reinforcing norms that relegate
unmarried adults to the shadows.
Consider the issue of family leave.37 If a couple in the United States is
married and one spouse falls seriously ill, the other spouse has a right,
pursuant to the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), to take unpaid
employment leave to care for the ill spouse.38 If an unmarried individual
falls seriously ill, she may need to rely on her cohabiting partner for care,
but that partner has no right to unpaid leave. Likewise, the sick individual’s
siblings and grandparents might be able to provide care, but none of these
family members has a legal right to take leave because the FMLA defines
family narrowly.39 In contrast to the FMLA, some foreign jurisdictions
extend leave rights to de facto family members, such as cohabiting partners,
and extended family members.40 Unfortunately, Obergefell undermines the
34. Marriage continues to be a strong norm for college-educated individuals and
individuals with good incomes, but marriage rates have declined for other demographic
groups. See generally PEW RESEARCH CTR., THE DECLINE OF MARRIAGE AND RISE OF NEW
35. See Rich Miller, Single Americans Now More Than Half of U.S. Population, CHI.
TRIB. (Sept. 10, 2014, 9:49 AM),
http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/nationworld/chisingle-americans-population-20140910-story.html (citing 2014 data showing that a majority
of Americans were unmarried) [https://perma.cc/6TV5-XSFN]; PEW RESEARCH CTR., supra
note 34, at i (“About half (52%) of all adults in [the United States] were married in 2008;
back in 1960, seven-in-ten (72%) were.”).
36. See, e.g., Huntington, supra note 17, at 28–30; R.A. Lenhardt, Integrating Equal
Marriage, 81 FORDHAM L. REV. 761, 764–65 (2012); see also CYNTHIA GRANT BOWMAN,
UNMARRIED COUPLES, LAW, AND PUBLIC POLICY 97–101 (2010).
37. Of course, family leave is only one of many legal areas where marriage matters.
“Valid marriage under state law is also a significant status for over a thousand provisions of
federal law.” Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct. 2584, 2601 (2015).
38. Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) of 1993, 29 U.S.C. § 2612(a)(1)(C) (2012)
(granting employees right to take leave “[i]n order to care for the spouse, or a son, daughter,
or parent, of the employee, if such spouse, son, daughter, or parent has a serious health
39. See id.
40. For example, in Ontario, Canada, the law allows employees to take “family
caregiver leave” to care for parents, children, siblings, grandparents, grandchildren, and any
other relative who is a legal dependent of the employee. See Family Caregiver Leave, ONT.
MINISTRY LAB., https://www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/es/pubs/guide/caregiver.php (last
revised Nov. 20, 2015) [https://perma.cc/3UDN-YMVP]. Additionally, when someone is at
risk of dying, Ontario’s law grants “family medical leave” to a wider range of caregivers,
spirit of recognizing and supporting diverse family configurations that
extend beyond married couples and the nuclear family.41 Failing to address
the medical needs of unmarried adults undermines not only those
individuals’ dignity but also public health more generally.
The distinctiveness of South Africa’s Constitution may lead some to
wonder whether Fourie’s conceptualization of marriage is inapplicable to
other constitutional regimes. South Africa is one of only a few countries to
explicitly bar sexual orientation discrimination in its constitution.42 While
at first blush, one might believe this feature makes South Africa uniquely
positioned to protect same-sex marriage rights on the basis of equality
without discussing same-sex marriage as a fundamental liberty, this
contention is misguided for at least two reasons.
First, jurisdictions beyond South Africa have treated sexual orientation as
a protected category under constitutional law even though their
constitutions do not explicitly address sexual orientation. Jurisdictions
ranging from Canada to Hong Kong have reasoned that sexual orientation
discrimination is subject to strong judicial scrutiny because it is sufficiently
similar to other forms of prohibited discrimination, such as racial and
gender discrimination.43 Likewise, in the United States prior to Obergefell,
some federal appellate courts and state supreme courts struck down
samesex marriage bans on equality grounds without invoking the fundamental
right to marry, reasoning that sexual orientation is a protected category.44
These cases all suggest that there are pathways for striking down same-sex
marriage bans without invoking the fundamental right to marry, even if the
jurisdiction’s constitution does not explicitly bar sexual orientation
Second, courts can hold that same-sex marriage bans violate the
fundamental right to marry without overglorifying marriage. Prior to
Obergefell, the Fourth and Tenth Circuits struck down same-sex marriage
including aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces, and other individuals who are functionally like a
family member. See id.
41. Cf. Huntington, supra note 17, at 29 (“The legal system already does far too little to
support nonmarital families, and Justice Kennedy’s opinion reinforces the notion that these
families are deviant.”).
42. See S. AFR. CONST., 1996, ch. 2, § 9(3)–(4).
43. See Egan v. Canada,  S.C.R. 513 (Can.); Sec’y for Justice v. Yau Yuk Lung,
 10 H.K.C.F.A.R. 335, 345–46, 349 (C.F.A.).
44. E.g., Latta v. Otter, 771 F.3d 456, 467–68 (9th Cir. 2014); Baskin v. Bogan, 766
F.3d 648, 654 (7th Cir. 2014); Varnum v. Brien, 763 N.W.2d 862, 889 (Iowa 2009). These
courts refer to sexual orientation as a “suspect” or “quasi-suspect” classification. The U.S.
Supreme Court has never found sexual orientation to be a suspect or quasi-suspect
classification, but it has struck down discriminatory laws that were based on antigay animus.
See generally United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675 (2013); Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S.
620 (1996). The Obergefell Court also held that same-sex marriage bans impermissibly
discriminate based on sexual orientation and, in reaching this conclusion, emphasized that
same-sex couples were being denied a fundamental right. Obergefell v. Hodges, 135 S. Ct.
2584, 2608 (2015); see also Hunter, supra note 17, at 113 (questioning “how strong . . . the
Court’s commitment to equality [will] be when there is no fundamental liberty involved to
make apparent the inequality of a sexual orientation classification”).
bans, concluding that they violated the fundamental right to marry.45 Yet
neither of these courts suggested, as Obergefell did, that marriage dignifies
couples. Rather, the Fourth and Tenth Circuits focused primarily on the
importance of marriage as an act of self-definition.46 In this regard, these
opinions are more like Fourie than Obergefell. However, neither of these
circuits went as far as Fourie in acknowledging critiques of marriage and in
explicating the injuries caused by denying marital choice.47
II. BEYOND MARRIAGE:
RECOGNITION BY REGISTRATION
VERSUS RECOGNITION BY ASCRIPTION
Looking beyond marriage, law reform groups in both the United States
and South Africa have called for extending legal rights and responsibilities
to unmarried couples. In South Africa, Fourie set a supportive tone for
developing protections for unmarried couples because it recognized that
being unmarried is a legitimate choice.48 However, even in the United
States, Obergefell’s glorification of marriage notwithstanding, some states
and local governments have extended legal protections to unmarried
couples.49 This part of the Article examines ongoing debates about
developing new legal rights and responsibilities for unmarried couples.
Before discussing pending proposals regarding unmarried couples, it is
helpful to develop a clearer picture of the existing legal landscape of
relationship recognition, starting with South Africa. Fourie ordered the
South African Parliament to pass legislation extending marriage rights to
same-sex couples.50 Parliament responded by enacting the Civil Union Act,
which the president’s office signed into law.51 The Civil Union Act granted
both same-sex and different-sex couples the options of registering their
relationships as either a marriage or a civil partnership.52
Note that “civil union” has different meanings in South Africa and in the
United States. In parts of the United States where civil unions are
offered—Colorado, Hawaii, Illinois, and New Jersey—civil unions are an
alternative to marriage.53 Civil unions carry virtually all the same legal
consequences as marriage under state law,54 but a couple might opt for a
civil union to avoid the symbolism of marriage. In contrast to the United
States, South Africa uses “civil union” as an umbrella term covering
marriages and civil partnerships.55 In other words, marriages and civil
partnerships are two different forms of civil unions. Civil partnerships in
South Africa are the equivalent of civil unions in the United States.
When Parliament passed the Civil Union Act, it failed to abolish the
preexisting Marriage Act, which also grants marriage rights to different-sex
couples.56 Thus, as a technical matter, different-sex couples in South
Africa can either marry pursuant the Civil Union Act or the Marriage Act,57
but there is no legal difference between these marriages. Human rights
activists have condemned the South African Parliament’s preservation of
the Marriage Act because it remains a symbol of inequality.58
South African law also includes the Recognition of Customary Marriages
Act (“the Customary Marriages Act”), which allows for the legal
registration of marriages that are “concluded in accordance with customary
law” of indigenous South African groups.59 Much commentary has focused
on the fact that the Customary Marriages Act permits the legal recognition
of certain polygamous marriages.60 Some commentators believe this aspect
of the Customary Marriages Act is unconstitutional because indigenous
polygamous practices perpetuate the subordination of women.61 It is,
plan was condemned for failing to comply with Fourie, Parliament developed the bill that
ultimately became the Civil Union Act. See id.
53. NAT’L CTR. FOR LESBIAN RIGHTS, MARRIAGE, DOMESTIC PARTNERSHIPS, AND
CIVIL UNIONS: SAME-SEX COUPLES WITHIN THE UNITED STATES 2 (2015), http://
54. See id.
55. Civil Union Act 17 of 2006 § 1.
56. See David Bilchitz & Melanie Judge, The Civil Union Act: Messy Compromise or
Giant Leap Forward?, in TO HAVE & TO HOLD: THE MAKING OF SAME-SEX MARRIAGE IN
SOUTH AFRICA 149, 156 (Melanie Judge et al. eds., 2008).
57. See id.
58. See, e.g., Bilchitz & Judge, supra note 56, at 149.
59. Recognition of Customary Marriages Act 120 of 1998 § 1 (S. Afr.).
60. See, e.g., Penelope E. Andrews, “Big Love”?: The Recognition of Customary
Marriages in South Africa, 64 WASH. & LEE L. REV. 1483, 1484 (2007); Penelope E.
Andrews, Who’s Afraid of Polygamy?: Exploring the Boundaries of Family, Equality and
Custom in South Africa, 2009 UTAH L. REV. 351; Pierre de Vos, Further Thoughts on
Polygamy, CONSTITUTIONALLY SPEAKING (Jan. 6, 2010), http://constitutionally
speaking.co.za/further-thoughts-on-polygamy/ [https://perma.cc/LDZ7-FXLU]; Pierre de
Vos, Is Polygamy Unconstitutional?, CONSTITUTIONALLY SPEAKING (Jan. 4, 2010)
[hereinafter de Vos, Is Polygamy Unconstitutional],
61. See, e.g., COLLEEN LOWE MORNA ET AL., GENDER LINKS, GENDER IN THE 2009 SOUTH
AFRICAN ELECTIONS 10, 18 (2010), http://genderlinks.org.za/wp-content/uploads/imported/
articles/attachments/13667_gc2324_sa_election_report.pdf (noting that the advocacy group
however, beyond the scope of this Article to delve into the debate about the
constitutionality of polygamy. Instead, this Article highlights the
Customary Marriages Act, the Marriage Act, and the Civil Union Act to
demonstrate that, as a group, these laws now permit adults to register their
relationships in a variety of ways.
In 2008, South Africa’s Home Affairs Bureau proposed the Domestic
Partnership Bill, which has fueled ongoing debate. If passed, the bill would
offer yet another form of legal recognition for adult relationships.62 It
would make “domestic partnership” a legal status that carries some, but not
all, of the legal consequences of marriage.63 For example, registered
domestic partners would have the same rights as spouses to seek damages
based on wrongful death, but different property ownership rules would be
applied to spouses, as opposed to registered domestic partners.64 In
addition to allowing couples to register as domestic partners, the proposed
law would ascribe the status of “unregistered domestic partnership” to some
cohabiting couples.65 This status would allow individuals in an
unregistered couple to sue each other for support and property distribution
if they end their relationship.66 Unregistered domestic partners would also
have rights to inheritance and support payments from a deceased partner’s
estate.67 Recognizing unregistered domestic partnerships would help to
protect dependent partners who find themselves financially vulnerable upon
breaking up with or the death of their partner.68
Commentators have debated the merits of the Domestic Partnership Bill
since its proposal.69 In these debates, the prospect of legally recognizing
Gender Links believes that polygamy in South Africa is likely unconstitutional)
[https://perma.cc/VB6S-URMY]; de Vos, Is Polygamy Unconstitutional, supra note 60
(noting that “[i]t is often said that polygamous marriages are unconstitutional,” but
concluding that the author is “not sure a court will declare polygamy unconstitutional”).
62. Domestic Partnerships Bill 2008, G.N. 36 of G.G. 30663 (14 Jan. 2008) (S. Afr.).
63. See id. § 2.
64. Id. § 21.
65. See generally id. §§ 26–33.
66. See id. § 32.
67. See id. § 21. South Africa currently recognizes unregistered same-sex domestic
partners (or “life partners”) for a range of purposes, such as inheritance and pensions. See de
Vos & Barnard, supra note 52, at 823. South Africa granted these rights to same-sex
couples when same-sex couples could not yet marry, and these rights have not been
rescinded. See id. at 822. Commentators have criticized the fact that the law currently
discriminates between unregistered partners based on sexual orientation, whereby same-sex
couples have rights that their heterosexual counterparts lack. See id. at 822–24. Unregistered
couples in South Africa can use contracts to formalize agreements with each other. South
Africa does not recognize the doctrine of common law marriage, which allows couples in
some parts of the United States to be legally married without formally registering their
marriage. See id. at 803.
68. See, e.g., Helen Kruse, ‘Here’s to You, Mrs Robinson’: Peculiarities and Paragraph
29 in Determining the Treatment of Domestic Partnerships, 25 S. AFR. J. HUM. RTS. 380,
387 (2009) (criticizing the law for failing to protect unmarried couples upon the death of one
69. See, e.g., Ben Coetzee Bester & Anne Louw, Domestic Partners and “The Choice
Argument”: Quo Vadis?, 18 POTCHEFSTROOM ELECTRONIC L.J. 2951, 2969 (2015); Kruse,
supra note 68, at 389; Bradley Smith, Rethinking Volks v. Robinson: The Implications of
registered domestic partners appears much less controversial than legally
recognizing unregistered domestic partners.70 Commentators have raised
concerns about the recognition of unregistered domestic partnerships
because doing so imposes a status on couples that they do not choose,
compromising the principle of self-determination.71 Notably, in the United
States, some commentators have opposed legally recognizing couples
through any alternative to marriage because they contend that such
alternatives would symbolically devalue the institution of marriage.72 In
South Africa, however, this has not been a significant worry; instead,
concerns raised by commentators have centered around the issue of
In some U.S. states, policymakers have rejected the idea that marriage
must be preserved as the sole form of relationship recognition.74 In these
states, like in South Africa, there are now multiple ways to register adult
relationships.75 For example, in Colorado, different-sex and same-sex
couples can register their relationships as a marriage or civil union.76 In
addition, any two adults who are not in a marriage or civil union can
register each other as a “designated beneficiary.”77 Designated
beneficiaries do not have the full panoply of rights and responsibilities that
are conferred by marriage or civil union. Instead, upon registration,
designated beneficiaries can sign up for a limited set of rights including the
right to have standing to sue for wrongful death, hospital visitations,
medical decision making, employee pensions, and inheritance.78
Individuals choose to become designated beneficiaries for a variety of
reasons. For example, a young couple might wish to formalize their
relationship without yet undertaking the deeper commitment of marriage
because they view their relationship as a trial period. An elderly widow and
widower may choose to become designated beneficiaries because they are
romantically involved but do not wish to remarry. Additionally, two elderly
Applying a “Contextualized Choice Model” to Prospective South African Domestic
Partnerships Legislation, 13 POTCHEFSTROOM ELECTRONIC L.J. 238, 239 (2010).
70. See, e.g., Bester & Louw, supra note 69, at 2969–74; Smith, supra note 69, at 287–
sisters who have become each other’s primary caregiver may wish to
formalize their relationship through the designated beneficiary system.
Programs like Colorado’s designated beneficiary registry and South
Africa’s proposed scheme for registered domestic partnerships serve
important public policy goals.79 First, giving partners a meaningful
registration alternative to marriage enables freedom of choice.80 Second,
this option promotes the government’s interest in supporting caregiving
relationships, which in turn enhances the well-being of its citizenry.81
These registration programs advance this goal by providing security and
clarity to partners who do not wish to marry. For example, a registered
couple can rest assured that if one partner becomes sick, the other will have
hospital visitation and medical decision-making rights. If one partner dies,
the other may be financially cared for through rights to inheritance and the
possibility of wrongful death damages.82 Relationship registries that confer
rights related to relationship dissolution (e.g., property distribution and
alimony) also promote the well-being of citizens by helping couples
transition out of their relationships.83
While a number of U.S. states have expanded relationship registration
options, there has been considerable resistance to relationship recognition
through ascription. In 2002, the American Law Institute (ALI) encouraged
all states to adopt legislation to ascribe domestic partnership status to
79. As this Article later discusses, success of such partnership registries requires certain
conditions. For example, the government must adequately educate the public about the
availability of the registries and design the registries to provide a set of rights and
responsibilities that appeals to potential registrants. For further discussion on these points,
see infra notes 96–100 and accompanying text.
80. While choice is important to the principle of autonomy, it is worth noting that
offering more choices is not always better. If a state offers too many relationship registration
options, the registration system can become confusing and difficult to administer. For
elaboration on this point, see Erez Aloni, Registering Relationships, 87 TUL. L. REV. 573,
600 (2013). Giving people one meaningful registration alternative to marriage, however, is
unlikely to pose such problems. Civil unions in the United States and civil partnerships in
South Africa arguably are not very meaningful choices for people seeking an alternative to
marry because these registration options differ from marriage in name only. See id. at 576–
81. See generally MAXINE EICHNER, THE SUPPORTIVE STATE: FAMILIES, GOVERNMENT,
AND AMERICA’S POLITICAL IDEALS (2010).
82. People can obtain some of these protections through private agreements such as
healthcare proxies, wills, and contracts. However, forming these agreements with the help
of attorneys is usually more complicated and more expensive than filing paperwork for a
government registry. Thus, relationship registries perform what Carl Schneider has called
the “facilitative function” of family law. See Carl E. Schneider, The Channeling Function in
Family Law, 20 HOFSTRA L. REV. 495, 497 (1992). Relation registries provide clarity that is
often missing from private agreements, which can be poorly written or, in some cases,
entirely unwritten. See Ira Ellman, “Contract Thinking” Was Marvin’s Fatal Flaw, 76
NOTRE DAME L. REV. 1365, 1367 (2001) (contending that contracts, whether written or oral,
are poor tools for addressing intimate partnerships because “couples do not in fact think of
their relationship in contract terms”).
83. Recall that Fourie acknowledged the importance of dissolution rights afforded to
married couples. See supra notes 32–33 and accompanying text.
couples cohabiting for significant durations of time.84 Some prominent
legal scholars have echoed the ALI’s call.85 These proposals are chiefly
aimed at the protection of vulnerable parties during the dissolution of
unmarried partnerships.86 Still, nearly fifteen years after the ALI published
its proposal, only one state—Washington—has adopted an ascriptive
regime.87 Some commentators in the United States have raised concerns
echoing the critiques in South Africa about ascriptive regimes
After same-sex marriage became legal in the United States, some states
discontinued alternative forms of relationship registration.89 For example,
five states that previously offered civil unions to same-sex couples stopped
granting civil unions.90 This trend reflected the view that civil unions were
an inferior status offered to same-sex couples when same-sex marriage was
unavailable, and, now that same-sex couples can legally marry, civil unions
are obsolete.91 Although some jurisdictions have indeed abolished
alternatives to marriage, others have intentionally preserved these
84. See PRINCIPLES OF THE LAW OF FAMILY DISSOLUTION: ANALYSIS AND
RECOMMENDATIONS §§ 4–7 (AM. LAW INST. 2002). According to the ALI principles, a
couple should be considered a legally recognized domestic partnership if they cohabit for a
certain duration of time specified by the state. See id. § 6.03. The principles suggest that the
requisite duration should be shorter in cases where couples have children. See id. The
principles also list factors that can be used to rebut the presumption of domestic partnership.
See id. The principles allow couples to avoid being recognized as domestic partners by
contracting around the default rule. See id. §§ 7.01–.12.
85. See, e.g., BOWMAN, supra note 36; Nancy D. Polikoff, Making Marriage Matter
Less: The ALI Domestic Partner Principles Are One Step in the Right Direction, 2004 U.
CHI. LEGAL F. 353.
86. See, e.g., BOWMAN, supra note 36, at 222–23 (discussing the protection of vulnerable
parties); Polikoff, supra note 85, at 353 (noting the goal of “achiev[ing] fairness when a
87. See Aloni, supra note 80, at 590 (citing Olver v. Fowler, 168 P.3d 348, 350 (Wash.
2007); In re Marriage of Lindsey, 678 P.2d 328, 331 (Wash. 1984)). Couples can also
contract a common law marriage in nine states and the District of Columbia. See BOWMAN,
supra note 36, at 47–48. I do not consider common law marriage to be an ascriptive regime.
Even though couples in a common law marriage never formalize their marriage through
registration, they must choose to be married: common law marriage requires that the couple
demonstrate an intent to be married and hold themselves out as a married couple. See id. at
55. Some courts, however, have defined the elements of common law marriage so loosely
that common law marriage arguably begins to look more like an ascriptive regime. See, e.g.,
Parker v. Parker, 265 S.E.2d 237, 240 (N.C. Ct. App. 1980) (stating that a couple’s mutual
agreement to enter a common law marriage can be inferred).
88. See, e.g., Aloni, supra note 80, at 616; Marsha Garrison, Is Consent Necessary?: An
Evaluation of the Emerging Law of Cohabitant Obligation, 52 UCLA L. REV. 815, 856–57
(2005); Elizabeth S. Scott, Marriage, Cohabitation and Collective Responsibility for
Dependency, 2004 U. CHI. LEGAL F. 225, 262. As noted above, commentators have also
raised concerns about the devaluation of marriage. See supra note 72 and accompanying
89. See generally NAT’L CTR. FOR LESBIAN RIGHTS, supra note 53.
90. The five states are Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, and
Vermont. See id. at 6, 15, 18, 20.
91. See Joanna L. Grossman, Though Obsolete, the Civil Union Continues to Mystify
Courts, VERDICT (Nov. 24, 201
/11/24/though-obsolete-thecivil-union-continues-to-mystify-courts (“[T]he civil union has been made essentially
irrelevant . . . .”) [https://perma.cc/ZB68-SZ5D].
alternative registration statuses to give couples more options.92 In fact,
some local governments have deliberately expanded relationship
registration options even after same-sex marriage became legal.93
In light of these developments, this Article recommends pragmatically
refocusing law reform efforts. In the United States, advocates of law
reform should focus on proposing a model law for registering domestic
partnerships that would confer some, but not all, the legal consequences of
marriage. To date, neither the ALI nor the Uniform Law Commission has
offered a model law of this sort. The time is ripe for doing so.94
Meanwhile, in South Africa, law reform proponents should focus on
persuading Parliament to adopt legislation on registered partnerships,
leaving legislation on unregistered partnerships for consideration later.
These focal shifts are pragmatic and maintain agnosticism on the merits of
ascriptive regimes. In South Africa and in at least some U.S. states, there
seems to be a growing acceptance of developing multiple relationship
registration options. This acceptance makes expanding registration options
more feasible than reform targeting ascription. As discussed above,
developing relationship registration options beyond marriage can advance
important policy goals.95
A small but growing body of scholarly literature has begun to explore
how registration schemes can be most successful.96 This literature should
be further developed to address questions such as: What rights and
responsibilities should be conferred upon registration?97 How can
governments best educate people about a new registration option?98 How
92. See, e.g., Savannah Luschei, Berkeley City Council Dismisses Proposal to Close
City’s Domestic Partnership Registry, DAILY CALIFORNIAN (Oct. 7, 2013),
http://www.dailycal.org/2013/10/07/berkeley-city-council-dismisses-proposal-close-citysdomestic-partnership-registry/ (discussing the retention of a municipal domestic partnership
registry in Berkeley, California) [https://perma.cc/Z9AD-MZZ8].
93. See, e.g., George Hesselberg, Opposite-Sex Partners Get Same Benefits as Same-Sex
Partners in Domestic Relationships in Dane County, WIS. ST. J. (May 13, 2016),
http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/opposite-sex-partners-get-same-benefits-as-samesex-partners/article_9e383647-600f-566a-9fca-8ef741c105a9.html (discussing Dane County,
Wisconsin’s decision to grant different-sex couples the ability to register as domestic
partners, an option previously available only to same-sex couples)
[https://perma.cc/6WBM4Q4L]; Ken Jackson, Commission Creates Domestic Partner Registry, OSCEOLA
NEWSGAZETTE (Aug. 10, 2016, 9:43 AM),
http://www.aroundosceola.com/commission-createsdomestic-partner-registry/ (reporting the establishment of a new domestic partnership
registry in Osceola County, Florida) [https://perma.cc/GU5H-BFHU].
94. The Law Commission of Canada has issued a report of this sort. See generally LAW
COMM’N OF CAN., BEYOND CONJUGALITY: RECOGNIZING AND SUPPORTING CLOSE PERSONAL
ADULT RELATIONSHIPS (2001).
95. See supra notes 79–83 and accompanying text.
96. See, e.g., Aloni, supra note 80; Jessica R. Feinberg, The Survival of Nonmarital
Relationship Statuses in the Same-Sex Marriage Era: A Proposal, 87 TEMP. L. REV.
); Jihyun Kim et al., The Rise of Pacs: A New Type of Commitment from the City of
Love, 56 WASHBURN L.J. 69 (2016).
97. The legal effects of an alternative registration option must be sufficiently fewer than
the effects of marriage, so that people are given a meaningful choice between the options;
however, there must be sufficient effects to make registration consequential.
98. Research suggests that South Africans may not be aware of the various relationship
registration options that already exist. See Elena Moore & Chuma Himonga, Customary
might governments ensure that a new registration option will not deter
couples from supporting each other more deeply through marriage?99 To
address such questions, existing scholarship has often studied the success
story of the pacte civil de solidarité, France’s version of domestic
partnership registration that has become very popular, especially among
couples seeking a trial period before marriage.100 Future scholarship should
branch out and examine the successes and failures of newer registration
schemes, such as Colorado’s designated beneficiary system.
A close look at the United States and South Africa suggests that South
Africa has developed a better approach to same-sex marriage. Looking
beyond same-sex marriage, both South Africa and the United States should
explore legal reforms to expand options for relationship registration.
5. 135 S. Ct . 2584 ( 2015 ).
6. Id. at 2607-08.
7. US: Supreme Court Upholds Same-Sex Marriage , HUM. RTS. WATCH (June 26 , 2015 , 10 :48 AM), https://www.hrw.org/news/2015/06/26/us-supreme -court-upholds-samesex-marriage [https://perma .cc/43LD-S6XP].
8. 2006 ( 1) SA 524 (CC) (S. Afr .).
9. Obergefell , 135 S. Ct . at 2604.
10. Id . at 2597-03.
11. Id . at 2602- 04 . The Court noted that “[e]ach concept-liberty and equal protection-leads to a stronger understanding of the other . ” Id. at 2603.
12. Id . at 2594.
13. Id . at 2599.
14. Id . at 2594 , 2602, 2608 .
15. Id . at 2600.
16. Id . at 2608.
17. See , e.g., Leonore Carpenter & David S. Cohen , A Union Unlike Any Other: Obergefell and the Doctrine of Marital Superiority, 104 GEO . L.J. ONLINE 124 , 124 - 25 ( 2015 ) ; Nan D. Hunter, Interpreting Liberty and Equality Through the Lens of Marriage, 6 CALIF. L. REV . CIR. 107 , 107 - 08 ( 2015 ) ; Clare Huntington, Obergefell's Conservatism: Reifying Familial Fronts, 84 FORDHAM L . REV. 23 , 28 - 30 ( 2015 ) ; Michael Cobb, Editorial, The Supreme Court's Lonely Hearts Club , N.Y. TIMES (June 30, 2015 ), https://www.nytimes.com/ 2015 /06/30/opinion/the-supreme -courts-lonely-hearts-club .html?_ r=0 [https://perma.cc/29ZN-BC3V].
18. In the interest of disclosure, I should note that I am married and love being married. I have also previously written about marriage's stabilizing effect on many couples' relationships, which improves couples' health and well-being. See generally Holning Lau & Charles Q. Strohm , The Effects of Legally Recognizing Same-Sex Unions on Health and Well-Being, 29 LAW & INEQ. 107 ( 2011 ).
19. Minister of Home Affairs v . Fourie 2006 ( 1) SA 524 (CC) at 569 para. 114 (S. Afr .).
20. Four other countries had extended marriage rights to same-sex couples through national legislation by the time Fourie was decided . See Holning Lau, Comparative Perspectives on Strategic Remedial Delays , 91 TUL. L. REV. 259 , 278 n. 103 ( 2016 ).
21. Fourie 2006 (1) SA 524 (CC) at 553-54 para. 72.
22. Id .
23. Id .
45. Bostic v. Schaefer , 760 F.3d 352 ( 4th Cir . 2014 ); Bishop v . Smith , 760 F.3d 1070 ( 10th Cir . 2014 ); Kitchen v . Herbert , 755 F.3d 1193 ( 10th Cir . 2014 ).
46. See Bostic, 760 F.3d at 373 -77 (emphasizing “freedom of choice”); Kitchen, 755 F. 3d at 1212-24 (repeatedly referring to the right to marry as a matter of “personal choice”).
47. See supra notes 24-31 and accompanying text.
48. See supra notes 21-27 and accompanying text.
49. For discussion about Obergefell's glorification of marriage , see supra notes 12-16 and accompanying text.
50. Minister of Home Affairs v . Fourie 2006 ( 1) SA 524 (CC) at 576 para . 136 , 585 para. 161 ( S. Afr .). For my previous writing on the sociopolitical significance of Parliament's role, see generally Lau , supra note 20.
51. See Civil Union Act 17 of 2006 (S. Afr .). Deputy President Mlambo-Ngcuka signed the law while President Thabo Mbeki was abroad . SA Same-Sex Marriage Law Signed, BBC NEWS (Nov. 30 , 2006 ), http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/africa/6159991.stm [https://perma.cc/ RGP3-LQC9].
52. Civil Union Act 17 of 2006 § 1. The development of the civil partnership option was not originally motivated by an enlightened desire to give couples a choice between marriage and an alternative option . See Pierre de Vos & Jaco Barnard , Same-Sex Marriage , Civil Unions and Domestic Partnerships in South Africa: Critical Reflections on an Ongoing Saga , 124 S. AFR . L.J. 795 , 808 ( 2007 ). Instead, opponents of same-sex marriage intended to make civil partnerships the only option for same-sex couples. See id . After that
71. Due to concerns about self-determination, some commentators believe that “unregistered domestic partnership” must be defined narrowly so that the status is ascribed only under exceptional circumstances; commentators disagree, however, about how to define such circumstances . See, e.g., Bester & Louw, supra note 69 , 2969 - 74 ; Smith, supra note 69, at 238-39.
72. See , e.g., Lynn Wardle , Deconstructing Family: A Critique of the American Law Institute's “Domestic Partners” Proposal, 2001 BYU L . REV. 1189 , 1226 .
73. See supra notes 70-71 and accompanying text.
74. Eleven states and the District of Columbia allow adults to register their relationships in some form other than just marriage . See NAT'L CTR. FOR LESBIAN RIGHTS , supra note 53, at 2. These alternative statuses include civil unions, domestic partnerships, designated beneficiaries, and reciprocal beneficiaries . See id.
75. See id.
76. See COLO . REV. STAT. §§ 14-15-107 , - 117 ( 2013 ) (civil union law); see also NAT'L CTR. FOR LESBIAN RIGHTS , supra note 53, at 5.
77. COLO. REV. STAT. § 15-22-105 (designated beneficiaries law).
78. See id.