Shannan Seitler and Monica Butler live in Medford, Oregon. They’ve been together for almost 10 years. They met in 2003 through a mutual friend, and they’ve been together ever since.
(Photo via AFER)
As you can see in the picture above, Shannan and Monica have five children. In 2004, they found out that Monica’s nephew would be put up for adoption. They called the Oregon Dept. of Children’s Services and asked to be placed as an adoptive resource. They took Monica’s nephew home when he was 18 months old.
Two years later, the state called again. They asked Shannan and Monica if they would take two foster children into their care. Anticipating that their foster children would be removed from the home eventually, Shannan and Monica sought to have a child of their own. After one of them became pregnant, however, the state called again and asked them to take a third sibling of the two foster children they were looking after. Since their living situation was becoming long-term, the state wanted to keep the kids together. Shannan and Monica said yes with little hesitation. Today Shannan and Monica look after five children, including their adopted nephew and the three foster children who are now a permanent part of the family.
Shannan and Monica have planned a wedding ceremony for 2013. But they still cannot get legally married in Oregon. For Shannan and Monica, marriage is about far more than love:
“I have not completely adopted all of the children. All of the things that I have to go through with Ryan’s health issues will improve. I am not his [legal] guardian but I take care of him just as much, and that’s a big issue,” Shannan explains.
“Not all of our legal documents are truly combined and it makes things difficult,” Monica adds.
And yet aside from the legal dimension, Shannan and Monica also believe that the institution of marriage is important:
But for the couple, being married is also about instilling a sense of love and family in their children. Shannan explains, “It’s really important for our kids to understand what a marriage looks like… Marriage is one thing I have always told my children is the next step once you’re in a solid, committed relationship.”
The state of Oregon believed that Shannan and Monica were fit parents. Yet some states still make it difficult for gay couples to adopt children. As of 2010, it was still illegal in Florida for gay couples to adopt children, before a Florida appeals court struck down the law. Mississippi bans gay couples from adopting, but not single gay people. Other states, such as Michigan, have laws that ban unmarried couples from adopting, which creates a de facto ban on adoption for gay couples who cannot legally marry. Utah has a similar law, which creates an unrebuttable presumption that adoption by an unmarried couple is never in the best interests of the child (see also this article for details on state adoption laws).
It is both difficult and frustrating to see a happy, successful couple like Shannan and Butler raise five children, live productive lives, and yet are denied the legal rights enjoyed by their heterosexual peers. In some cases, the denial of these legal rights affect their ability to manage the welfare of their children. What’s more, Shannan and Butler clearly believe that marriage is the heart of a stable family: a concept regularly touted by cultural Conservatives as a precondition of a prosperous society. If Shannan, Monica and the Board of the Family Research Council sat down and had a conversation about the importance of marriage to creating stable families, they’d probably agree more than they’d disagree.
There is more than one way to solve Shannan and Monica’s problem. Many would prefer the state got out of the marriage business altogether. While I agree that this would be preferable, it nonetheless seems politically impractical. The thousands of rights and privileges granted to married couples under both state and federal law have become ingrained in the legal framework of Western civilization. Few, if any countries do not somehow legally recognize married couples in some way.
The middle way would be to get rid of the word “marriage” in legal statutes, and make all matrimonial licenses “civil unions” of a sort. This way, both gay and heterosexual couples can present their relationship to the world using the language of marriage, but without the implied rhetorical precondition of it being a “legal” marriage. Yet this too, seems impractical, however preferable it may be to our present legal framework. Most efforts to affect this sort of reform have failed, there seems to be little political momentum for such a change in our nation’s marriage laws.
The trend seems to be that this truly will be a “states’ rights” issue. States are legalizing same-sex marriage at a slow-but-steady pace. DOMA also appears to be not long for this world, after a federal judge in Connecticut struck down DOMA’s definition of marriage as unconstitutional. If DOMA makes it to the Supreme Court and is struck down, then there is a strong chance that gay couples will be able to have out-of-state marriages recognized in their home state. Nothing is for certain, though, as states commonly decline to recognize licenses, permits, certifications, etc. that are issued in other states. The demise of DOMA would, however, force the federal government to start treating gay couples as married for purposes of receiving federal benefits. And that, at least, would be a step in the right direction for Shannan and Monica’s family.
(Photo via AFER)