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Proponents of same-sex marriage have an argument that they believe trumps all others: "Suppose my same-sex partner and I were to get married," they ask. "How would that harm your heterosexual marriage?" The question is rhetorical. The answer is assumed to be: "My heterosexual marriage would not be harmed in the slightest." The conclusion follows naturally: If same-sex marriage causes you no harm, then why not permit it?
This simple argument conceals an assumption that, once granted, virtually gives away the game to the same-sex advocates. The assumption is that marriage is a purely private affair involving the emotional attachment between two autonomous individuals. If that assumption is true, then the private emotional attachment between two members of the same sex has no necessary effect on the private emotional attachment between their opposite-sex neighbors.
But the entire history of marriage bears witness against that assumption. Heretofore, marriage has never been a purely private relationship. It has been a social institution with a set of rules: It takes two to marry. Everyone has a limited pool of potential mates. You cannot marry a minor. You cannot marry a close relative. You cannot marry someone who is already married. And you cannot marry someone of the same sex. These rules apply equally to all.
Marriage always involves more than the two spouses. That's why witnesses are required. That's why brides and grooms usually seek the presence of parents and other family and friends. That's why the state registers marriages and treats married couples differently from single persons.
The Community's Stake
The meaning of these practices is this: The community has a stake in every marriage. Every marriage that succeeds strengthens the rest of us. Every marriage that fails weakens the rest of us. No marriage is an island.
We see this truth worked out in practice. When divorces started to rise in the 1970s, they spread like an epidemic. As couples in a community saw their neighbors divorce, they started to doubt the solidity of their own marriage vows. Dissatisfied spouses began to consider divorce more seriously.
Likewise, in a community where people see adultery tolerated in their neighbors' marriages, they are more likely to indulge their own adulterous desires. Where they see spousal or child abuse tolerated in their neighbors' homes, they are more likely to lash out against their own spouse or children.
Every married couple sets an example, good or bad, for every other married couple. Obviously, well-established couples may not be affected as much. But newer and less stable couples—and young people forming ideas of marriage for the future—will be more deeply influenced by the examples they see.
A Different Kind of Example
So what kind of example might same-sex couples set for the rest of society? Contrary to blithe assertions that such couples are "just like the rest of us," there are in fact major observable differences between marriage and same-sex relationships.
Normativity: The proportion of homosexuals who are in partnered relationships is far lower than the proportion of heterosexuals who are married. Census Bureau estimates show only about 30 percent of the US homosexual population living in partnered households. By contrast, 56.3 percent of all Americans above age 18 are married and living with their spouse.
Where marriage or domestic partnerships have been available to same-sex couples, only a small percentage has come forward to claim the status. Scholars Maggie Gallagher and Joshua Baker estimate that in the Netherlands, where same-sex marriage has been recognized since 2001, only 6 percent of the homosexual population has chosen to marry. In various Canadian provinces, between 1 and 14 percent of the homosexual population has opted for marriage. In Massachusetts, the range is between 10 and 25 percent. Clearly, when same-sex marriage is allowed, it does not become normative for homosexuals in the way that marriage has historically been normative for heterosexuals.
Longevity: Same-sex relationships have much shorter durations than marriages. University of Chicago sociologist Edward Lauman reports, "Typical gay city inhabitants spend most of their adult lives in 'transactional' relationships, or short-term commitments of less than six months." A Netherlands study estimates that homosexual men had an average "duration of steady partnerships" of 1.5 years. Only a small minority of same-sex relationships last more than a decade.
By contrast, more than 70 percent of marriages reach their tenth anniversary. Divorce rates for gay male couples in Norway and Sweden are 50 percent higher than for heterosexuals. Rates for lesbian couples are more than 150 percent higher.
Promiscuity: Same-sex relationships are far more promiscuous than marriages. The 1994 Sex in America survey found less than 2 percent of homosexuals to be monogamous, while 83 percent of heterosexuals were in a monogamous relationship. The average number of partners in the past year was 8 for the homosexual respondents, 1.2 for heterosexuals. The average number of lifetime partners was 50 for homosexuals, 4 for heterosexuals. Prominent homosexual authors such as Andrew Sullivan and Michelangelo Signorile have touted this sexual "flexibility" as an advantage of same-sex relationships.
Personal Problems: Homosexuals have a higher incidence of problems such as alcoholism, drug abuse, and some forms of mental illness. Some homosexual advocates acknowledge these problems; however, they blame them all on negative self-images implanted by a disapproving society. They express the hope that, as homosexual relations are legitimated through marriage, gays and lesbians will acquire more positive self-images and change their behaviors for the better. But so far there is little evidence of such change in countries and regions where homosexuality is now widely accepted.
There are significant questions about whether, in a society that already has too many bad marital models, we should add problematic same-sex relationships into the mix. The normativity, permanence, exclusivity, and other-nurturing qualities of marriage are already called into question through heterosexual misconduct. Same-sex marriage would seem more likely to weaken than to strengthen those threatened qualities.
A Different Lesson for Society
Nevertheless, the question arises: Are there not at least some same-sex relationships that display the desired qualities of permanence, exclusivity, and nurturance? Should not such relationships qualify as marriage?
Here the problem lies in the message that is conveyed by legitimizing same-sex marriage. For to accommodate those few same-sex couples, the definition of marriage must be changed for all other couples, too. The law is always a moral teacher, and the lessons imparted by same-sex marriage would differ tremendously from those delivered by traditional marriage.
Traditionally, the law has taught that marriage is about bringing together the two complementary sexes. It has taught that marriage is consummated in a sexual act in which the male and female unite their mated bodies, with the possibility of conceiving a new life out of that union. The law has taught that a central purpose of marriage is to provide the setting in which children born of the marital union can be reared by their biological father and mother.
In addition, the Christian tradition has taught that God originated marriage when he created man and woman. It has exalted marriage as a mystical union of dissimilar persons, reflecting the eternal union between a transcendent God and his earthly people.
All these deep meanings would be lost if marriage were reduced to just an attachment between any "two persons who love each other"—as it must be reduced if same-sex couples are to be accommodated. Marriage would be just a convenient social arrangement. It would be little different from any number of other relationships, sexual or non-sexual. All couples would be impoverished by this diminution of marriage.
Ultimately, what's driving the campaign for "marriage equality" seems to be the desire for a visible expression of society's blessing. Homosexuals, perhaps still struggling with negative images of themselves and their relationships, are desperate to have society to tell them that they are alright. They may not want the substance of marriage, but they crave the symbolic affirmation. Andrew Sullivan remarks, "Including homosexuals within marriage would be a means of conferring the highest form of social approval imaginable."
But this is precisely the kind of approval that many other Americans, including orthodox Christians, do not wish to grant. Based on both Scripture and natural-law reasoning, they cannot approve of homosexual relations. These opponents of same-sex marriage are willing to let gays and lesbians form whatever relationships they choose; however, they do not want the state blessing those relationships. They do not want the state to equate those relationships with marriage.
A Threat to Religious Liberty
Where the state does equate same-sex relations with marriage, it generates an immediate threat to the religious liberties of those who oppose that policy. The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty held a conference (and subsequently published a book) on Same-Sex Marriage and Religious Liberty: Emerging Conflicts. Participants included both proponents and opponents of same-sex marriage. All these legal scholars agreed that the conflicts were real and likely to grow; they disagreed over whether courts and legislatures should give preference to the claims of same-sex couples or to the claims of dissenting religious people and groups.
American Jewish Congress lawyer Marc Stern noted the high stakes: "[S]ame-sex marriage would work a sea change in American law. That change will reverberate across the legal and religious landscape in ways that are unpredictable today."
Sexual revisionists have shown that, when they triumph in the political arena, they will bring state power to bear against private persons and institutions that dissent. This is the logic of their position. Pro-homosexuality advocates regularly portray their cause as a matter of "justice" for "sexual minorities." The high constitutional principle of "equal protection of the law" mandates recognition of same-sex marriages, they claim.
These advocates regard any distinction between marriage and same-sex partnerships as an illegal and immoral form of "discrimination." Frequently, they compare today's defenders of traditional marriage to the racists of an earlier generation.
Once a court or legislature grants the demand for "equal marriage rights" for non-marital relationships, this line of thinking becomes official state policy. Religious people who still see marriage as the lifelong union of one man and one woman become enemies of state policy who must be brought into compliance.
All Areas of Life Affected
Revisionists sometimes promise that churches would never be forced to perform same-sex weddings. But they do not offer any protections against the more likely forms of pressure: Defenders of traditional marriage (like racists) could be shamed and driven off the airwaves and out of the public square. Teachers and other public employees who voiced "hate speech" against homosexuals could be disciplined or fired.
Corporations would have to worry about "anti-discrimination" lawsuits alleging a "hostile environment" created by remarks critical of same-sex relations. The easiest way to guard against such lawsuits would be to stop hiring persons known to hold "bigoted" religious beliefs on the question.
Public schools would teach that same-sex relations were morally equivalent to marriage. Parents who disagreed might not have the option of exempting their children from such indoctrination. Christian colleges might be compelled to admit and house students in same-sex relationships.
Christian businesspeople could be forced to facilitate same-sex weddings. Christian counselors, social workers, and fertility doctors might lose their professional licenses if they refused to assist same-sex couples on an equal basis. Parachurch ministries with policies upholding traditional marriage could forfeit their access to public facilities, tax exemptions, and government contracts. They might be forced to hire employees in same-sex relationships, unless they could demonstrate that adherence to Christian teaching on marriage was essential to the particular job.
We have already seen this process advance in jurisdictions that treat same-sex couples as if they were married. The Roman Catholic Church has been driven out of the adoption business in Massachusetts and Great Britain because it prefers to place children with man-woman married couples. In Canada, Christian broadcasters and schoolteachers have been prosecuted for alleged "hate speech" against homosexuals. Appeals for "the free exercise of religion" may not be sufficient to protect Christian individuals and institutions from such attempts to compel their acceptance of non-marital relationships.
If more and more of these threats materialize in the United States, it would be a high price to pay in exchange for questionable benefits to a rather small minority. The harm is indeed great. •
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