Published in the Roanoke Times As Virginia’s Marriage Amendment comes under attack both in the courts and the legislature, Virginians should be critically examining the question of why the state regulates marriage and whether its definition should be stretched to encompass committed same-sex couples. Having done that, we should consider what our answers mean for all marriages.
Those who favor expanding “marriage” have framed the issue as one of “equality” or “non-discrimination.” While these labels are incredibly effective at winning popular support for the cause, they are misplaced in this debate.
“Inequality” and “non-discrimination” are repugnant when they involve making arbitrary distinctions between like things; not when they distinguish between things that are, in fact, different in relevant ways. So sound public policy on marriage—as with any other regulated good—requires that it be defined to include whatever qualifications are necessary to effectuate the purpose of state regulation, but to exclude any that are arbitrary.
Historically, the purpose of civil marriage has been to provide societal incentives for those who unite physically and produce children to stick together and raise them. The best scientific evidence supports what society has historically intuited: that the nurturing and training of children is optimally performed by both biological parents. This is not to say that others who undertake the task should not be commended and supported, but rather to recognize that there is an ideal situation for children which should be encouraged. Males and females offer different, yet equally vital, strengths to parenting; neither gender is dispensable.
As long as the primary purpose of civil marriage is to foster optimal child-rearing by the very individuals whose union has produced the children, defining marriage as a specifically heterosexual bond is not an act of invidious discrimination toward other kinds of relationships, because heterosexuality is a necessary definitional component.
While many support same-sex “marriage” out of a desire to demonstrate goodwill and support for the intimate relationships of LGBT persons, redefining the venerated institution of marriage is unnecessary to this goal. Traditional civil marriage laws do not brand homosexual relationships as “bad”; they brand heterosexual marriage as being “unique” to society in ways that justify its civil recognition—leaving gay couples in good company with every other non-regulated relationship in society, including friendship.
But redefining marriage is also harmful, because it would signal a fundamental change in the purpose for state regulation of all marriage that could ultimately render marriage irrelevant. Defining marriage to encompass same-sex couples (thus eschewing objective characteristics such as gender) means defining marriage on the strength of two individuals’ emotional bond and subjective desires rather than on their potential to benefit society by creating an ideal situation for nurturing children. Once this is done, on what fair, rational basis could the benefits of civil marriage fairly be denied to brothers, roommates, or best friends—relationships that offer no unique societal benefits?
Once relational configurations that are inherently unlike traditional marriages are brought within the fold of “marriage,” the definitional enclosure will serve little public purpose. As explained in the recent book by Girgis, Anderson and George, What Is Marriage?, “Laws that restrict people’s freedom for no deep purpose are not likely to last, much less to influence behavior.” Expanding the contours of civil marriage beyond those dictated by its societal purpose will stretch the institution to pointlessness.
The flavor of marriage has changed over time. The historical conception of marriage was more focused on duty, commitment, and sacrifice than self-fulfillment and personal happiness. This attitudinal shift may explain the universally sorry statistical condition of the institution of marriage today. But it also explains why, to many, expanding marriage seems appropriate. If marriage is about having society’s stamp of approval on the relationship that brings me the most joy and fulfillment, then why shouldn’t my own desires determine what kind of relationship that is?
Marriage is at a crossroads not only because allowing for gay “marriage” means formally changing what marriage is, but also because retaining the old definition requires us to admit that our contemporary, self-centered attitudes about marriage have informally effected such a change already. For those who support the traditional definition of marriage as oriented toward the public good, integrity requires us to rebuild this attitude toward marriage as well.
Rita Dunaway, Virginia Christian Alliance Vice President for Public Policy, also writes on her blog Fundamental Things. Rita M. Dunaway graduated summa cum laude from West Virginia University in 1998, having earned a B.S. in Journalism and a B.A. in Political Science simultaneously.