It has been nearly two months since California started issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples, and somehow civilization as we know it has not come crashing down. The legal and political fights over the issue are far from over, however.
Gay rights supporters tried and failed to keep Proposition 8 from appearing on the state’s November ballot. Prop. 8 would change the state constitution, banning same-sex marriages and effectively overturning the California Supreme Court’s May ruling.
Opponents of same-sex marriage are fighting their own court battle, charging that changes to the wording of Proposition 8’s ballot title and summary made by the attorney general’s office might bias voters against the measure.
In its 4-3 decision in May, the California Supreme Court ruled: “[I]n view of the substance and significance of the fundamental constitutional right to form a family relationship, the California Constitution properly must be interpreted to guarantee this basic civil right to all Californians, whether gay or heterosexual, and to all same-sex couples as well as to opposite-sex couples.”
While the Supreme Court’s decision offers homosexuals the same freedoms as heterosexuals to formalize their commitments to their significant other, it should also serve as a reminder that the government has encroached on the most personal aspects of our lives.
In the gay marriage debate both sides are right, and both sides are wrong.
Gay marriage opponents are wrong to use the law to enforce their notion of morality on others. Doing so violates the libertarian principle that people should be allowed to live their lives as they please, so long as they do not infringe on the equal right of others to do the same. A homosexual couple’s decision to enter into a religious or social agreement certainly does not preclude a heterosexual couple’s right to do so.
There seems to be widespread irrational thought about the very word “marriage.” Polls consistently show that even in areas where voters are wary of overturning laws to permit same-sex marriage, significantly greater percentages of people favor bestowing the same rights on gay couples as on married straight couples, as long as the relationships are called some other name, like “civil unions.” Even President George Bush, who pushed for the failed federal constitutional ban on same-sex marriages in 2006, has suggested that gay couples should be able to enjoy many, if not all, of the benefits of marriage through “civil unions” or “domestic partnerships” if individual states sanction such “legal arrangements other than marriage.” But if the rights are the same, what difference does semantics make?
By politicizing a private matter-deciding to whom one may pledge one’s love, support, and fidelity-opponents of same-sex marriage have created a world of winners and losers where once there were only voluntary promises. Gay marriage opponents are thus wrong to insist that they have the right to decide how marriage should be defined (i.e., whether it should be sanctioned only if it is between a man and a woman, or even whether marriage should be a religious institution or a secular social commitment) not only for themselves but for everyone else as well.
Similarly, same-sex couples should not be able to force their notion of marriage on others, either. Religious leaders or others who would perform marriage ceremonies have every right to refuse to marry couples for moral, philosophical, or any other reasons. Private business owners should be able to decide for themselves whether it is in their interest to offer group health benefits, family leave benefits, special mortgage loans rates, etc., to couples – gay or straight.
In addition, gay rights activists are wrong to petition the government for “equal” marital status. This demand merely perpetuates the politicization of what should be a private issue. Gay rights activists would better serve their interests by arguing that the government should not be in the marriage business in the first place.
Marriage, whether entered into by those who consider it a sacred religious covenant or those who see it as a secular social bond and contract, is a profoundly personal decision between those in love. The “sanctity” of marriage must be defined by the individual-or couple-not an interest group and certainly not the state. There simply is no role for the state in marriage.