When the Supreme Court last June overturned a section of the Defense
of Marriage Act saying that in the eyes of the federal government only
man-woman unions count as marriages, the court said it wasn’t
questioning the authority of the states to bar same-sex marriage if they
wish. Thirty-three states now do.
dozens of lawsuits in many parts of the country are currently underway
in an effort to hand gay marriage advocates what they’ve wanted all
alonga Supreme Court decision declaring that the Constitution gives
same-sex couples a right to marry overriding state laws to the contrary.
or more of these cases will reach the Supreme Court soon, perhaps as
early as next year, and will set the stageso the advocates hopefor
such a ruling. Against this background, it’s more important than ever to
have a realistic understanding of what this argument is really all
Consider, then, these words of a federal judge named Robert
J. Shelby in his opinion last December striking down Utah’s refusal to
recognize same-sex marriage: “The state’s current laws deny its gay and
lesbian citizens their fundamental right to marry and, in doing so,
demean the dignity of these same-sex couples for no rational reason.”
the case for gay marriage in a nutshell. It makes sense ifand only
ifyou accept the judge’s unstated assumption that unions which
necessarily exclude goods and purposes that up to now have been held to
be at the heart of marriage are “marriages” just the same. The goods and
purposes in question are man-woman complementarity and openness to the
begetting of children.
If ever there was a redefinition of
marriage, it’s this. But so what? After all, doesn’t restricting
marriage to man-woman couples deny gays and lesbians the right to marry
and thus, as Judge Shelby says, demean their dignity?
doesn’t. For one thing, since gay marriage is, in the opposed view, no
marriage at all, the choice to enter into such a union can’t be called
an exercise of the right to marry. As for demeaning gays and lesbians,
same-sex couples are no more demeaned by telling them their radical
redefinition of marriage doesn’t satisfy rational criteria for marriage
than I would be demeaned by being told I can’t play second base for the
At bottom, the gay marriage debate isn’t about
whether a smallish number of people can enter into unions that must be
recognized as marriages despite their failure to satisfy rational
criteria for marriage. Rather, what’s happening here is a conflict of
world views at a far deeper level.
One holds that the reality of
marriage is a given of nature that can’t be changed by courts or
legislatures or public opinion polls. The other holds marriage to be a
product of social convention, subject to redefinition and
re-configuration ad infinitum at the pleasure of those who have the
power. But if that’s how it is with marriage, someone might reasonably
ask, what else? The answer, as we already know from the experience of
legalized abortion and the continuing pressure for legalized euthanasia,
extends to human life itself.
Come November, voters in Oregon may
find two marriage-related initiatives on the ballot. One declares
approval for same-sex marriage. The other offers protection against
being penalized to people who refuse in conscience to cooperate with the
new marriage regime. The first seems likely to pass. The fate of the
second is problematical. And that’s the world we live in now.