We all want equality in marriage. No one is asking for certain marriages to be treated differently than other marriages; such a demand has never been voiced to my knowledge by anyone involved in the public discourse.
The real question is - how do (or should) we define marriage? I don't mean from a religious or moral point of view. I'm talking about a public policy point of view. Why is government involved in marriage in the first place? Should the government be involved in it? All sides of the debate are asking the government to be involved in defining marriage in varying degrees, in various ways, and for various ends. Some want states to decide. Some want the federal government to decide. Some want courts to decide. Others want legislatures to decide.
The root issue is that we as a society can't agree on a definition of marriage, just like we can't agree on a definition for "education" or "freedom" or "security". The roots of this conversation go back much further than the modern gay rights movement.
This is not a matter of choosing between one definition or another. It is narrow- and simple-minded to think that we must choose between only two definitions of marriage; the issue is much more complex than that. There are more than two definitions of marriage being thrown around in this debate. In fact, I suggest there are six competing and overlapping definitions, each supported by different arguments that are emphasized by different camps. Each definition may have virtue in its own right, but each leaves some gaping holes in its implications.
Definition #1: Marriage is a purely romantic/sexual relationship. We should be free to marry who we love.
This definition outright ignores children's role in the marriage relationship, and turns the focus to adult pleasure. It also assumes that government is preventing someone from loving another. Let's not pretend that we need government's permission to love or to publicly state our commitment to another person. Any couple can do that without the state's permission. What advocates of this definition are really looking for is for the government to legitimize their lifestyle, so that they cannot be refused certain services or accommodations.
But, if we accept this definition, then why can someone not love more than one person at a time? Government discriminating against polygamous people is just as bad as government discriminating against homosexual people. We must ask ourselves, why is the government in the love business at all? The vagueness of this definition only shows that there must be more to marriage than love or sexual fulfillment. Lastly, this definition does not even require a sexual relationship - only a mutually-agreed-upon relationship, as these two men in New Zealand demonstrated. Unless we invite the government into our bedrooms (heaven forbid) government cannot control the degree to which marriage is a sexual relationship. Anyone who accepts this definition of marriage must also logically and legally accept the actions of these two men.
Definition #2: Marriage is a partnership between two adults, and is formed strictly as a means to achieve certain economic ends.
An economic model is a compelling argument. But, then, can a daughter and father marry if they find it economically and mutually beneficial? What about two brothers? Again, this definition ignores the raising of children, especially when it is economically unwise. It also ignores sexuality, which every other definition takes into account. Surely, marriage ought to have a sexual aspect to it, or at least an emotional aspect. In short, we should all know that marriage (and by extension, family) is about more than just money.
Definition #3: Marriage is designed for the creation and rearing of children.
The strongest argument supporting this definition is the fact that only heterosexual couples have the potential to have children (homosexual couples must invoke a third party to produce a child). Yet, it's not a requirement for a married couple to have kids, nor are you required to be married if you happen to have kids. So this argument isn't really about marriage. And while homosexual couples can't exclusively produce children, they can certainly raise them.
So, this definition leaves us squabbling over what kind of sexual relationship - homosexual or heterosexual - is better for raising children. The jurors of sociology, psychology, and family science are still out on this question. Research has not proven the superiority of one over the other. So, should we be leaving government to experiment with children by adopting untested ideas and parading them around as sound public policy? Public policy should be based on sound and time-tested empirical research, not fads or public opinion. Gay marriage is a fad, not in the sense that it is temporary (its definitely here to stay) but that it is untested and new as a government policy.
Religion is also cited when using this definition, But, remember, I'm not talking about religion here. I'm talking about public policy, which certainly has an interest in the raising of children - otherwise, why have public schools, or child protection services? The fact that those who oppose this definition do not consider the welfare of children is more than a little concerning.
Definition #4: Marriage is a government-granted license, like a business license or drivers license, that brings with it certain rights or privileges for the involved parties.
This has been the history of marriage in the last few centuries. As our modern world has become more complex with legal and financial benefits, governments have granted certain privileges to those who are married, supposedly in order to promote replacement population growth and economic stability. But, these rights, such as who receives one's insurance and tax benefits, should naturally belong to everyone and are not inherent in a marriage relationship; they ought not to be granted by government alone. This definition also has the potential to violate religious freedom under the First Amendment. If a church wants to define marriage other than as it is defined by the state, the government would be violating that church's rights. Under this definition, a church cannot issue a marriage license that does not conform to the state's definition.
Definition #5: Marriage is a natural human right that government should protect by granting to everyone, regardless of race, gender, or sexual orientation.
Again, this places the emphasis on adult rights, instead of responsibilities. And, it is entirely without precedent. Marriage itself has never been an explicit constitutional right (as have free speech, or trial by jury); but instead, governments for centuries have granted certain rights to those who are married (see Definition #4), such as tax benefits. Marriage should certainly be a freedom, but not a right.
Definition #6: Marriage is a religious institution - like baptism - that should be left for religions to determine.
While this libertarian approach seems to address the concerns of Definition #4, it does not address how rights that would traditionally be associated with marriage should be transferred between adults. If marriage is not the mechanism to transfer these rights or benefits, what is that mechanism? It would be left up to legislators and courts to determine this mechanism, leaving a very messing and cumbersome democratic process to fill in the gaps. It also ignores government's responsibility in promoting the interests of children (the future generations) and stable family units, thus undermining the advantages of Definitions #2 and #3. Society would view "marriage" as optional. Many European countries have tried this route in order to preserve religious freedom. But, we've seen dramatic demographic changes in these countries that have a direct impact on economic growth and security.
My purpose in writing this post is not to argue for one definition over another. Rather, I leave some food for thought for the reader to digest. Namely, recognizing these differing definitions begs certain questions:
Does a sovereign state have the right to adopt only one of these definitions, to the exclusion of all others? Or can a state adopt whichever one they want?
Must a definition be adopted by court edict? Or can a people collectively decide which definition they prefer? Perhaps different definitions lend themselves to different means of implementation.
Can the government re-define what it means to be a husband? A father? To be a mother or wife? Conceivably, yes, but we better be careful if we attempt to do so. We are opening a Pandora's Box of socio-economic upheaval if we do so without caution and without regard for future generations.