We all think that what we believe is right. We’ve been taught principles of right and wrong all our lives. We’ve thought about what the principles mean and we’ve decided which narrative of morality we believe is right. Sadly, most of us want something else, too. We want others to endorse our view of morality.
The whole issue of gay marriage has become a battle between two sides wanting to “make a statement” about right and wrong — and forcing others to go along with them — rather than finding a legal solution that respects everybody’s rights. This battle is fierce enough that passionate people on both sides aren’t really interested in a principled solution to get government out of the marriage business. For those people, it’s a social battle to force “society” to endorse their position.
On the surface, the issue seems to be about how everyone can be treated equally by the law while respecting individuals’ very different beliefs about the underlying issue of homosexuality. If that were truly the only issue to deal with, we have a solution. Eliminate marriage licenses and get government out of the business of deciding what a marriage is. But that’s no longer what this is about. Here’s what the two sides really seem to be saying:
— Gay rights activists want society to endorse the idea that there’s nothing morally or ethically wrong with being gay. They insist that society must not only tolerate their beliefs and actions, but that society must declare it to be socially acceptable and that any opposition to their views is wrong.
— Opponents of gay marriage object to homosexuality in every way, shape, form or fashion. They believe it’s morally wrong. They not only object to gays and lesbians being treated equally by the law insofar as marriage, but they want society to declare (through prohibitive marriage rules) that being gay is fundamentally wrong.
Both sides in this debate are trying to use the power of government to force their views about morality onto people who strongly disagree with them. There’s absolutely no reason for everyone to agree about what marriage is. Private parties can recognize whatever they want to recognize. Companies can recognize whatever is in their interests to recognize. Churches and other religious groups can recognize whatever they believe complies with their views about right and wrong. Individuals can do whatever is in line with what they believe is right. Nothing should stop them.
If you endorse one particular state-enforced definition of marriage, you’re agreeing that government has the right to make that definition and enforce it on everyone. If government is wrong to use the power of the state to force someone else’s belief about the issue on you, why is it any more right for you to attempt to use the power of the state to force your view on others? No matter which side of the issue you’re on, your support of a government-mandated solution says you agree government has a right to force a definition on you, too.
Government has no business deciding who’s fit to be married. For most of history, governments had no role in the matter. It wasn’t until sometime in the 1500s that the Church of England started issuing licenses (for purposes very different from ours today), and since the Church of England was essentially a part of the state, other church groups weren’t allowed to legally license marriage.
In this country, recognition of marriage was a formality for many years. It wasn’t until later in the 19th century that governments started trying to control who could marry — mostly on racial grounds. Writing in the New York Times, history and family studies professor Stephanie Coontz wrote six years ago, “Marriage licenses came about in the late 19th century to prevent mixed-race marriages. That should be appalling to anyone, and is in my opinion the strongest argument to privatize marriage.”
If the only issue is how the law can treat everyone equally and still respect people’s right to disagree about morality, the answer is simple. Get government out of the licensing of marriage.
But if your desire is to force other people to endorse your views about morality, go right ahead with your crusades to force your views on everyone else. But be clear about what you’re doing. You’re fighting to empower government to define marriage as any random majority sees fit and you’re hoping to make your views the majority view that gets enforced.