Defining marriage

I want to say something right upfront: I absolve my brother of the responsibility of marrying my wife if I should happen to die before she does. I don’t think his wife would like him marrying her very much, and I know my wife doesn’t want to move to Arizona. I know what the Bible says on the subject, and I’m just saying, we’re not going to worry about it. He’s off the hook, as far as I’m concerned. My wife has a job in Utah, one she likes and is very good at. She’d just as soon stay put. So if I die first, bro, you don’t have to marry and care for your brother’s widow, the Bible notwithstanding. She’ll be fine.

Reading the oral arguments this last week in the case of Obergefell v Hodges, the gay marriage-defining case before the Supreme Court, one thing became clear; this is a case the Justices are taking very seriously. As Justice Scalia pointed out, “you’re asking us to decide it (same-sex marriage) when no other society until 2001 had it.” And Chief Justice Roberts made the same point, that theirs was a weighty responsibility. And it is. Marriage is the single most important social institution in all of human culture. I’m completely and entirely pro-marriage. Let’s get that out of the way too; this is not about being ‘for marriage’ or ‘against marriage.’

Several of the justices seemed to have done a lot of reading about marriage and its history. And they, quite correctly, pointed out that essentially all cultures had defined marriage as an institution between men and women; that no societies, prior to ours, had included, in their marriage customs, a relationship between two men, or between two women.

But then the venerable RBG, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, made this essential point in the entire argument:

But you wouldn’t be asking for this relief if the law of marriage was what it was a millennium ago. I mean, it wasn’t possible. Same-sex unions would not have opted into the pattern of marriage, which was a relationship, a dominant and a subordinate relationship. Yes, it was a relationship between a man and a woman, but the man decided where the couple would be domiciled; it was her obligation to follow him. There was a change in the relationship of marriage to make it egalitarian when it wasn’t egalitarian. And same-sex unions wouldn’t fit into what it was then.

Exactly. Marriage wasn’t so much between a man and a woman, as it was between a citizen and his property. It certainly wasn’t between a man and a “woman,” if we define “woman” as “autonomous equal,” or as “biologically different, but legally equalivalent.”

And “homosexual” didn’t mean the same thing then that it means today. In most societies, throughout most of history, “homosexual” meant “deviant.” It was defined by  words like “pervert,” “criminal,” “outcast.” It meant “subhuman.” Gay men had rights, but not as a gay person; they had rights only to the extent that they remained in the closet. Gay people have historically been persecuted, tortured, abused, rejected, reviled. Executed. The idea of codifying gay marriage or same sex marriage was completely unthinkable, most places, most times. That remains true in much of the world today. In much of the world, gay people live, quite literally, under a perpetual sentence of death. But in Western society, things have changed, and you’d have to be some kind of monster not to see those changes as wonderfully positive.

So when people talk about ‘traditional marriage,’ or ‘biblical marriage,’ they’re talking about an institution that absolutely nobody in modern Western society would want to reinstate. I don’t want to live in a world where women can’t own property, or vote, or manage their own affairs. I have no interest in living in a marriage that’s not defined in terms of equality. And when I work with gay colleagues, I don’t think of them as ‘gay colleagues.’ I think of them as co-workers, as friends, as designers or stage managers or actors. And I wouldn’t want it any other way, nor would anyone else. Redefining ‘gay’ has been a wonderful thing for society, just redefining marriage in more egalitarian ways has been a wonderful thing for society. Feminism rules. Equality rocks.

Besides, when we talk about ‘defining marriage,’ we’re talking about something that married couples do all the time, individually. We divide up chores, we figure out how we’re going to resolve differences, we work out a schedule, we talk and joke and sing and, at times, quarrel. ‘Defining marriage’ is a constant work in progress, full of compromises and long conversations and routines and traditions.

And, of course, some marriages are horrible. Some marriages are ‘defined’ by infidelity, or violence, or selfishness, or viciousness. Or passive-aggressive resentment. And some marriages don’t work at all, and end. And should end. And I suppose divorce is a bad thing–it’s often condemned from the pulpit, certainly. But I have known many people who have gotten divorced, and based on what I knew about those marriages, I can’t think of a single time when I didn’t think the divorce was a good thing, and completely justified. If being together makes one or both spouses completely miserably unhappy, ending it may be a kindness. I would point out as well that in most homicides, the cops look at the spouse first.

Will gay marriage change any of that? No, of course not. Gay couples quarrel, gay couples cheat, gay people are human beings, with the same propensity for bad behavior of any other people. And so what? They’re asking for equality.

John Bursch, attorney for the respondents, made what I thought was the single silliest argument in the whole court session. If gay people are allowed to marry, he said, then it will provide a disincentive for straight men, who have fathered a child, to marry the child’s mother, because a gay couple might be willing to adopt that child. First of all, there are plenty of unwanted children in need of stable, welcoming homes. And besides, people don’t make decisions as important as marriage based on Supreme Court decisions. People decide to marry, mostly, because they’re in love.

Of course, court-watchers love to parse the oral arguments of any case to see which way the Justices might be leaning. I think, though, that it’s going to go 5-4, and could easily be 6-3, if Roberts decides he wants to write for the majority. It’s been a long battle, but it’s close to over. And marriage, as an institution, will survive just fine.

10 thoughts on “Defining marriage

  1. Deb

    Unfortunately this will create a special class of people for an extremely small percentage of the populace. And in doing so criminalize people of faith for exercising their first amendment right to freedom of religion. This could lead to opening the doors wide for polygamy, pedophilia and many other Biblical sins.

    Forcing churches to recognize and perform same sex marriages against their faith is reverse discrimination. But none of you will consider the damage that will be done by demanding this acceptance.

    Imagine a family of faith attending a church that follows Biblical principles and does not wish to perform or recognize gay marriage. Soon the church and the congregation are experiencing protesters and threats of violence much like was seen during the Prop 8 vote in California. How long before the church looses its tax exempt status? How long before members are loosing their jobs because the LGBT are telling people that they are haters???How long before people of faith are so persecuted by the LGBT that violence erupts?

    Can’t happen you say? Just look at what happened in California when Prop 8 was being placed on the ballot.

    Since listening to both sides of the debate this isn’t so much of a need to be committed to another human being but in the words of their (progressives) leadership aka Hillary Clinton it is to remove deeply held religious beliefs.

    Additionally there was a recent video from one if the LGBT leaders that the sole purpose is to eliminate the institution of marriage altogether.

    Just because society has decided that good is evil and evil is good doesn’t make it so

    And before you all start calling me all manner of names I’ve lost dear friends and a sweet wonderful cousin who was gay. I hold them no ill will. I love the sinner but hate the sin.

    1. Anonymous

      I think it would be good for some people to also understand the definition of a protected or special class. In United States Federal anti-discrimination law, a protected class is a characteristic of a person which cannot be targeted for discrimination. ( Most likely every one reading this article belongs to more than one protected class. A protected class is a legal term used in this context mostly involving anti discrimination laws. As stated in the post definitions of marriage are always changing and means a lot of things to different people. To allow Gay or Lesbian couples to marry is simply further allowing people to define for themselves what their family will be within the current understanding of marriage for the majority of the population. to some it is about love, to some it is about breeding children. It is true some types of relationships can be harmful (animals can not consent, children cannot consent, people whose genetic makeup is too similar have a greater risk of birth defects and causes a society’s gene pool to have greater risks of increasing the commonality of defects and illness) to the individuals involved and society, however I have not seen any logical data or real world examples to where allowing same sex couples to marry would in any way harm anyone involved. You likely belong to at least 2 protected classes Due to religious affiliation and gender. This does not extend to forcing a priest to marry you in a cathedral. This does not force the mormon religion to allow non members to enter their temple. First amendment rights trump many protected classes but do not extend into public commerce where if you provide a public service then it should not have a personal bias.

    2. Salty Lad

      “This could lead to opening the doors wide for polygamy, pedophilia and many other Biblical sins.”

      Polygamy and Pedophilia were not biblical sins. That’s just us in the modern age who have decided those were bad practices – it was all sorts of good for men to marry a dozen or so pre-pubescent girls in the OT.

      “Forcing churches to recognize and perform same sex marriages against their faith is reverse discrimination. But none of you will consider the damage that will be done by demanding this acceptance.”

      There is nothing in this ruling requiring Churches to perform same sex marriage. Priests have every right to refuse to marry a Heterosexual couple for many reasons, why would they be not allowed to do the same for a homosexual couple? This is simply allowing Homosexual couples to get the same piece of paper that Heterosexuals get, and with it the same tax and insurance benefits.

      “Since listening to both sides of the debate this isn’t so much of a need to be committed to another human being but in the words of their (progressives) leadership aka Hillary Clinton it is to remove deeply held religious beliefs.

      Additionally there was a recent video from one if the LGBT leaders that the sole purpose is to eliminate the institution of marriage altogether.”

      Source? I’ve never heard this.

      “Just because society has decided that good is evil and evil is good doesn’t make it so”

      Based on your personal definition of good and evil. I’ll remind you that Christ made no mention of Homosexuals, but plenty about a multitude of other things that Republicans not only ignore, but actively go the other direction on.

  2. open minded

    How on EARTH is accepting the right of homosexuals to marry going to promote pedophilia, bestiality and other “Biblical” sins? Seriously, I long to understand that argument – because it makes no sense to me – but I’m listening with an open mind.

  3. Randy Farr

    Sure let’s return to Biblical marriage. As the blogger points out, women as property. And while at it let’s reinstate arranged marriages. Sorry Deb, but your own marriage is hardly biblical. Or, wait…..which are you, a wife or a concubine?

    And while threats and property damage are illegal and are condemned, protests are protected – for both sides!

    Finally, the 1st amendment has protected rabbis from performing inter-faith marriages, Priests from marrying divorced persons, and Mormons from performing temple marriages for Blacks (pre-1978). No religion will have to perform a same-sex union if they don’t want to, ever.

    Finally, finally, the whole purpose of a constitutional democracy is to protect “extremely small percentages of the population” from mob rule. I am not a minority but I am grateful for such protections. We are all better off when all receive protections for equality.

    1. Marcus Flint

      I think you are being a bit naïve. How big a step is it from imposing fines on a Christian photographer for not taking pictures at a gay wedding to imposing fines on a Christian pastor or priest for not performing a gay wedding? How long do you really think it will be before the court considers the pastor a businessman in the same sense as the photographer?

      1. Anonymous

        There’s a big difference between the religious exemption for religious organizations and public accommodation law for public-facing businesses. The religious exemption is a well established outgrowth of the 1st Amendment. Hasn’t cracked in 239 years. The government (U.S. and states) will not interfere with whom a Pastor/Rabbi/Imam/Priest can or cannot marry.

      2. Salty Lad

        Any priest can refuse services if they feel that the service is immoral. I am a heterosexual man, who married a LDS woman. Before we got married, we had to have an interview with her Bishop to see if he would be willing to perform the ceremony. Was he required to perform the service? Could I have sued him for denying a service based on prejudice against my religious beliefs? Could I have, in any way, blamed him for governing his personal actions based on his own personal beliefs?

        No, to all of the above. I was fortunate enough that he agreed to perform the service, but had he refused, we would have been forced to accept it.

  4. Rob Samuelsen

    So your wife and my sister-in-law would reject my good looks for reasons of geography? How shallow is that!

    The whole marriage debate does bring up interesting questions about polygamy, polyandry, incest, etc. If any two people can marry, does that include siblings, parent-child, youth, multiples?


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