Mark Davis

As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to tackle two gay marriage issues, those of us looking for some sweeping overall conclusions on the issue should temper our expectations.

The cases to be examined by the high court involve some specifics-- the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act, and the range of benefits the federal government should grant in states choosing to recognize gay unions.

Both will necessarily involve some examination of what role the federal government should play in matters of gay marriage, but neither is likely to settle the biggest questions:

What is the proper role of government in defining marriage? If some states recognize gay marriage and some do not, how are those differences navigated? And is so-called “marriage equality” a right?

The first task in addressing those big topics is to slog through the first big obstacle-- we don’t even have clarity on the language of the debate.

Take the phrase "gay marriage ban.” It conjures daunting images of authorities banging on the doors of churches, rounding up all involved in any union of two men or two women.

This is what happens when the left writes the dictionary for a debate. To be clear: gays may marry today in any state they wish, at any time or place. That is their business. The only thing that is everybody’s business is which marriages will be recognized as the legal equal of heterosexual unions.

A marriage has three components:

The religious component surrounds the involvement of God in the wedding (and thus the marriage), and the degree to which He is invoked in the ceremony. From profound religiosity to none, that spectrum is purely the business of the couple.

The social component involves the recognition of the couple as married, the acknowledgement of them as husband and wife (or husband and husband or whatever) by friends, family and acquaintances. This is a function of the community surrounding the couple, and is also purely a matter of individual freedom of choice.

The third component of marriage involves legal recognition and certain attendant benefits that attach themselves to the status of marriage under various statutes.

I would suggest that this is by far the least important of the three. The role of faith and loved ones in a marriage eclipses the technicality of the license in the home office file cabinet.

It is the promises made to God and the embrace of a marriage by family and friends that make it meaningful, not the imprimatur of government.

From rights of survivorship to hospital visitation, there are matters of basic decency which can be settled in law without redefining marriage at its root.

So what drives the urgency of activists who require legal equality for gay marriage as evidence of basic societal decency?

It is about acceptance. The agenda on this issue has less to do with the real-world lives of gay married couples than with the desire to have homosexuality recognized as just another way to be, like red-haired or left-handed.

Except that it is not. Marrying the same sex is not the same as marrying the opposite sex, just as marrying one person is not the same as marrying four.

States wishing to grant equal status to gay unions may do so. Those states choosing to maintain the singularity of man-woman marriage have that right as well. The tenth amendment requires such matters to be left to the states.

But that even-handed approach deprives the gay lobby of the bat to wield against opponents of “marriage equality,” that they are homophobes guilty of unjust discrimination.

The principled arguments in favor of unique status for male-female marriage contain not one speck of homophobia:

The anthropological basis for marriage is not first and foremost a platform of mutual devotion (although that is surely vital for marriage to succeed). It is to create an environment for the raising of children.

Same-sex marriage equivalency furthers the poisonous campaign of gender difference erosion. Men and women are unique and distinct, with differences that are to be celebrated and revered, not normed into one amorphous status.

The ideal environment for children is to be raised by a mother and father. While there are circumstances that can justifiably lead to gay couples adopting, nothing should impede preferential treatment for placing children in homes with a married man and woman.

A society that says a man marrying a man is the same as a man marrying a woman is a society that says manhood and womanhood are the same, a precedent that lays the groundwork for mountains of bad law in other areas, from the military draft to sexual harassment laws to various measures protecting women.

This line of logic contains no ill will toward gays or derision of their rights to craft whatever unions they wish. Individual liberty and religious freedom give them that right. But there is no right to expect that every state will recognize those marriages. Something does not become a right simply because people are passionate about it.

In fact, it is society that has a right to define the institution of marriage. If our constitutional republic leads us toward a patchwork quilt of states with varying laws on the issue, so be it. That is what liberty looks like.

But what of the gay couple married in a state that recognizes their union, that moves to a state that does not?

Once again, the answer comes from the well of state’s rights. If a state is free to recognize gay unions or not, that right is obliterated if gay couples arrive in that new state with the full expectation of recognition.

Such cases should not be treated like driver licenses, good in all 50 states for obvious reasons, but rather like business licenses that adhere to the specific rules of the state in question. Just as we are bound to afford states the right to equalize gay and straight marriage, there is the accompanying obligation to respect states wishing to decline that status.

Most gay marriage debates are flooded with the passionate but wholly irrelevant flavor of how the participants feel about gay people. With one side filled with advocates claiming non-existent “rights,” yelling at people shouting back with their thorough disapproval of homosexuality itself, it can be hard to sift through that noise to see what the law should say.

If the Supreme Court justices can shelve their individual politics and personal biases and adhere to what the Constitution actually directs, they will rule properly, whether on the two cases now before them or the larger issues yet to come.