Does gay marriage matter

Posted: Jun 03, 2002 12:00 AM
Last week two things happened:

In Massachusetts, seven same-sex couples appealed the case for gay marriage to the Massachusetts Supreme Court.

In Washington, D.C., three Republican and three Democratic representatives introduced the Federal Marriage Amendment, which says: "Marriage in the United States shall consist only of the union of a man and a woman. Neither this Constitution nor the constitution of any state, nor state or federal law shall be construed to require that marital status or the legal incidents thereof be conferred upon unmarried couples or groups."

The FMA is the brainchild of the Alliance for Marriage, which has gathered an unusually broad multicultural, interfaith coalition of support from African American and Hispanic leaders as well as Catholics, Protestants, Muslims and Jews. This broad support is not surprising: Marriage is not and should not be a conservative or liberal issue.

The usual suspects responded in the usual way: It's a "vicious attempt to make the U.S. Constitution explicitly anti-lesbian and gay rights," said Kim Gandy, president of the National Organization for Women.

Gandy packs a lot into one sentence. To believe (as I do) that marriage is between men and women, that it aims to get mothers and fathers for children, and to regulate those sexual relationships (permanent, life-giving) upon which the very existence of the next generation depends makes one a vicious bigot.

No big news there. More surprising has been the tepid reaction on what the left likes to call the far-right.

Many economic conservatives have little stomach for this fight. They no longer understand marriage as a key social institution, carrying out an important public purpose. They see marriage as an essentially private relationship, a soft good to be encouraged by culture and religion and family, but having no intrinsic relationship to law (which is supposed to regulate important things like property rights).

Perhaps more surprisingly, one prominent social conservative group, the Family Research Council, has come out against the FMA, saying it does not go far enough, that it would not create a constitutional ban on domestic partnership legislation. OK, but if in a few months Massachusetts judges impose gay marriage, and a flood of lawsuits urge (plausibly) that the full faith and credit clause of the Constitution requires every state to recognize Massachusetts' gay marriages, how will the FRC prevent it? The mere existence of a powerful, coherent, well-organized campaign with broad public support acts as a check on rogue judges tempted to make a name for themselves by reorganizing marriage. Whereas the reverse -- jumbled, incoherent, factional infighting -- can only encourage judicial experiments.

Gay activists, meanwhile, are pushing hard for gay marriage because they understand very well that marriage is not private, it is normative. People can live as they choose. We tolerate all kinds of sexual couplings in our society, but marriage is something different: It is the way that law, culture and society actively affirm the importance of one particular kind of sexual union. In legislating gay marriage, America would no longer merely tolerate or accept homosexuality. We would (all of us, as a society) actively celebrate it.

In the process, we would transform the very meaning of marriage at a time when this institution is in crisis. Why does marriage exist? Does it have anything to do with encouraging men and women to create new families? Does it have anything to do with minimizing fatherlessness? Does it have something to do with telling young men and women that there is something unique and special about placing their lives and their futures in the service of this idea of permanent, fruitful love?

My own belief is that if American civilization is to prosper in the long run, we need to recapture and deepen our understanding of the basic meaning of marriage.