NOTE: This is the sixth and final column in a series of columns related to National Marriage Week, Feb. 7-14, 2013. The fifth column is available here.
Much of the debate surrounding same-sex marriage asks about societal harms. Many advocates of the change quickly dismiss the question and insist that a redefinition of marriage won’t hurt anyone. But that conclusion proceeds from a misperception about what marriage is—a failure to grasp marriage’s role as a public institution that shapes our thoughts and actions.
Marriage is not merely a legal arrangement that bestows various benefits and obligations on its participants. It is a vibrant social institution whose norms (that is, shared public expectations)—such as exclusivity in sex, permanence in commitment, and procreative in form—make up much of our social fabric. Altering marriage’s core definition will inevitably change the public’s understanding of the institution and, in so doing, affect society’s acceptance of the cultural norms associated with it.
Advocates of redefining marriage agree that so doing will drastically alter the public’s views about marriage. Professor Nancy Cott, a supporter of same-sex marriage, acknowledges that redefining marriage would definitely have “an impact on the social meaning of marriage” and that changing the public meaning of marriage would unquestionably have “real world consequences.”
Indeed, for many same-sex marriage supporters, this is the very point. E.J. Graff asserts in Retying the Knot that redefining marriage “is a breathtakingly subversive idea” because it will transform marriage from a child-centric institution that exists to join mother and father for the benefit of their children into adult-focused symbolism that “will ever after stand for sexual choice, for cutting the link between sex and diapers.”
Austin R. Nimocks is senior counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom, an alliance-building, non-profit legal organization that has defended marriage and religious liberty in courts throughout the U.S.
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