Reprinted from The Economist.
“Give to every other human being every right that you claim for yourself – that is my doctrine.” ― Thomas Paine, The Age Of Reason
The case for allowing same-sex marriage 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 gay couples 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 Conservatives, is that this would damage an important social institution. Yet the reverse is surely true. Gay couples 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 them 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, for it is their infidelity, divorce rates and single-parent families that have wrought so much social damage.
“But marriage is about children,” say some…to which the answer is: it often is, but not always, and permitting same-sex 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 same-sex 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 same-sex partnerships, have moved in the same direction (Britain is contemplating just such a move, and even the opposition Conservative leader says he would support it). Some LGBT advocates think it would be better to limit their ambitions to that, rather than seeking full social equality, for fear of provoking a backlash.
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.