February 3, 2004

The case for same-sex marriage

To be honest, I'd prefer not to have to write this article. I wish that the president I helped elect didn't feel that "activist judges" were creating a right in extending marriage to same-sex couples. I wish, more saliently, that my peers didn't buy such arguments. But serious momentum exists to amend the Constitution to disallow such marriages, so something must be said.

The case for gay marriage is much simpler than most conservatives believe. Marriage, by the government's own reckoning, comes with 1,049 rights. Among them: survivor benefits, lower taxes, the ability to have one's spouse become a citizen, and spousal health insurance.

These rights are denied to same-sex couples. Same-sex couples (it doesn't matter how many) want these benefits. They want to get married, they want to have children, and they want the rights that are denied to them. Such a denial, in a government in which "equal protection of the law" is granted to all citizens, is clearly unfair.

A number of arguments have been put forth in an attempt to justify this denial. Marriage, it is said, is a religious institution. Marriage, it is said, is traditionally a male-female thing. Marriage, it is said, is sacrosanct and in danger, and will be further corrupted. Let's grant for the moment that the government's definition of marriage has its roots in a religious definition, and that the government should follow religious definitions of marriage. The simple fact is that many religions today recognize marriages of same-sex as well as male-female couples. Why should the government defer to one interpretation and not the other? How is the government to decide which religion is right and which is wrong?

Such a decision among religions is a decision that requires the government to evaluate and judge the internal logic of religions; this, in essence, gives the government the ability to pick which religions are valid, and which are not, and give the ones it thinks valid a special recognition in the form of the governmental institution of marriage. The government, even now, believes such an act clearly violates the freedom of religion.

We thus arrive at the central paradox of the proponents of this amendment: a government whose institutions are based in religion is a government that allows no freedom of religion at all. The separation of church and state, it should be remembered, is just as much for a vibrant political arena as it is for a vibrant religious arena.

Traditional definitions of marriage also hold little weight. Since when do we deny rights to people simply because there's a tradition of doing so? Tradition, it could be argued, means that neither women nor minorities nor even those without property should be allowed to vote. Saying simply, "we've always discriminated" is not a valid justification for continuing to discriminate.

But what of the argument that granting same-sex marriages would denigrate the sanctity of marriage as an institution? I must admit that this argument seems contradictory from the start; it would seem to me, after all, that a large group of people championing marriage as a natural right—even fighting for the right to get married—would be good for the institution of marriage.

But more salient is the fact that some nebulous understanding of the sanctity of marriage doesn't justify its denial to millions in this country. We wouldn't justify denial of the right to vote to women or minorities simply because it would "violate the sanctity of democracy." It's not the fault of homosexuals that you breeders can't seem to stay married.

Rights have primacy; they're paramount. Jefferson saw them as "self-evident." If rights are being denied, it's not for us to ask, "what's the cost of extending this right?" or "what does the majority think?" It's for us to remedy as quickly as possible.

The history of this nation is one of populations fighting for rights long denied to them. It's a sad history of discrimination and intransigence wrapped in the cloak of religion and words like "social good." Let us not add to this sorry history by, for the first time in our history, adding an amendment to the Constitution that would itself discriminate.