Marriage definition is key to debate

Sunday April 21, 2013

Not since President Obama announced his evolved position in favor of same-sex marriage has the topic engendered such heated discussion as when arguments were heard before the U.S. Supreme Court on two potentially landmark cases.

While following the debate, I have come to the conclusion that opponents and proponents of same-sex marriage are talking past each other. The difference in opinion comes down to how each side sees the institution of matrimony. Those who are in favor appear to define marriage in terms of an emotional fulfillment whereby two persons who are in love, regardless of gender, enter into a committed sexual relationship which would have legitimacy in the eyes of the state. This would ensure both spousal legal status as well as an even more rapid acceptance by society. Essentially, it is a civil rights argument.

Those opposed argue that for thousands of years, civilization has defined matrimony as the union of a man and a woman oriented to the goal of procreation and responsible rearing of children -- an activity that the species let alone society has more than a casual interest in assuring. There exists for them an intrinsic conjugal union component that is not deemed to be an essential part of the institution by proponents of same-sex marriage.

The question which must obviously then be answered by opponents is -- can a marriage exist in cases where the couple elect not to have children or are infertile because of a medical condition or advanced age? In these cases the opponents have argued that the union may fall short of reaching the goal but is nonetheless valid as the union remains in principle oriented to the goal.

A numerically not insignificant part of the population is against same-sex marriage because of its religious beliefs, which are in the most part based on revelations contained in scripture and religious tradition. These are certainly valid reasons, but I submit that our secular constitutions, be they state or federal, do not rest on these premises and as such a solely religious objection cannot be the basis of a legal civil argument.

This is the conundrum in which our nation finds itself. If marriage is solely a civil rights issue pursuant to the equality of all citizens under the law (the fairness argument), then same-sex marriage should go forward. If, on the contrary, one is disposed to a definition in which the state has a vested interest in the permanency and exclusivity that flows from procreation and child-rearing, one would logically be against its legalization.

Once pregnancy was efficiently decoupled from the sex act, some have argued with the advent and use of contraceptives, the view of marriage changed, and this may account for the cavernous divide in opinion on this subject between Americans at each end of the age spectrum.

In the opinion pieces I have read, the authors make the assumption that their definition is the correct and by extension, constitutional one. It is this hubris on both sides that is the major impediment to a resolution. Unless and until we resolve the definition which may only come about as a function of time ("evolve," if you will), the animus will continue.


North Adams


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