The case for gay marriage
Feb 26th 2004
It rests on equality, liberty and even society
SO AT last it is official: George Bush is in favour of unequal rights, big-government intrusiveness and federal power rather than devolution to the states. That is the implication of his announcement this week that he will support efforts to pass a constitutional amendment in America banning gay marriage. Some have sought to explain this action away simply as cynical politics, an effort to motivate his core conservative supporters to turn out to vote for him in November or to put his likely “Massachusetts liberal” opponent, John Kerry, in an awkward spot. Yet to call for a constitutional amendment is such a difficult, drastic and draconian move that cynicism is too weak an explanation. No, it must be worse than that: Mr Bush must actually believe in what he is doing.
Mr Bush says that he is acting to protect “the most fundamental institution of civilisation” from what he sees as “activist judges” who in Massachusetts early this month confirmed an earlier ruling that banning gay marriage is contrary to their state constitution. The city of San Francisco, gay capital of America, has been issuing thousands of marriage licences to homosexual couples, in apparent contradiction to state and even federal laws. It can only be a matter of time before this issue arrives at the federal Supreme Court. And those “activist judges”, who, by the way, gave Mr Bush his job in 2000, might well take the same view of the federal constitution as their Massachusetts equivalents did of their state code: that the constitution demands equality of treatment. Last June, in Lawrence v Texas, they ruled that state anti-sodomy laws violated the constitutional right of adults to choose how to conduct their private lives with regard to sex, saying further that “the Court’s obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate its own moral code”. That obligation could well lead the justices to uphold the right of gays to marry.
Let them wed
That idea remains shocking to many people. So far, only two countries—Belgium and the Netherlands—have given full legal status to same-sex unions, though Canada has backed the idea in principle and others have conferred almost-equal rights on such partnerships. The sight of homosexual men and women having wedding days just like those enjoyed for thousands of years by heterosexuals is unsettling, just as, for some people, is the sight of them holding hands or kissing. When The Economist first argued in favour of legalising gay marriage eight years ago (“Let them wed”, January 6th 1996) it shocked many of our readers, though fewer than it would have shocked eight years earlier and more than it will shock today. That is why we argued that such a radical change should not be pushed along precipitously. But nor should it be blocked precipitously.
The case for allowing gays to marry begins with equality, pure and simple. Why should one set of loving, consenting adults be denied a right that other such adults have and which, if exercised, will do no damage to anyone else? Not just because they have always lacked that right in the past, for sure: until the late 1960s, in some American states it was illegal for black adults to marry white ones, but precious few would defend that ban now on grounds that it was “traditional”. Another argument is rooted in semantics: marriage is the union of a man and a woman, and so cannot be extended to same-sex couples. They may live together and love one another, but cannot, on this argument, be “married”. But that is to dodge the real question—why not?—and to obscure the real nature of marriage, which is a binding commitment, at once legal, social and personal, between two people to take on special obligations to one another. If homosexuals want to make such marital commitments to one another, and to society, then why should they be prevented from doing so while other adults, equivalent in all other ways, are allowed to do so?
Civil unions are not enough
The reason, according to Mr Bush, is that this would damage an important social institution. Yet the reverse is surely true. Gays want to marry precisely because they see marriage as important: they want the symbolism that marriage brings, the extra sense of obligation and commitment, as well as the social recognition. Allowing gays to marry would, if anything, add to social stability, for it would increase the number of couples that take on real, rather than simply passing, commitments. The weakening of marriage has been heterosexuals’ doing, not gays’, for it is their infidelity, divorce rates and single-parent families that have wrought social damage.
But marriage is about children, say some: to which the answer is, it often is, but not always, and permitting gay marriage would not alter that. Or it is a religious act, say others: to which the answer is, yes, you may believe that, but if so it is no business of the state to impose a religious choice. Indeed, in America the constitution expressly bans the involvement of the state in religious matters, so it would be especially outrageous if the constitution were now to be used for religious ends.
The importance of marriage for society’s general health and stability also explains why the commonly mooted alternative to gay marriage—a so-called civil union—is not enough. Vermont has created this notion, of a legally registered contract between a couple that cannot, however, be called a “marriage”. Some European countries, by legislating for equal legal rights for gay partnerships, have moved in the same direction (Britain is contemplating just such a move, and even the opposition Conservative leader, Michael Howard, says he would support it). Some gays think it would be better to limit their ambitions to that, rather than seeking full social equality, for fear of provoking a backlash—of the sort perhaps epitomised by Mr Bush this week.
Yet that would be both wrong in principle and damaging for society. Marriage, as it is commonly viewed in society, is more than just a legal contract. Moreover, to establish something short of real marriage for some adults would tend to undermine the notion for all. Why shouldn’t everyone, in time, downgrade to civil unions? Now that really would threaten a fundamental institution of civilisation.