Preserving Marriage in Substance, Not Just Name
The Prop 8 debate is not a clash between civil liberties and religion.


So if supporters of Proposition 8 aren’t seeking special protection for sectarian religious views, what do they want? Simply put, to preserve a sound understanding of marriage, for the well-being of both spouses and the children their union may produce. As Prop 8 supporters see it, the institution of marriage exists to bring a man and a woman together in a sexual relationship that is publicly recognized and approved because of its unique aptness for the bearing and rearing of children. Marriage attaches a father to his children — and to his children’s mother — and fulfills the societal need for children to have the love and care of both mother and father. This institution is the natural response to human sexual embodiment as male and female, to human longing for bonding and intimacy, and to human dependency and need (especially in view of the fact that human newborns, unlike newborns of many other species, require many years of nurture before reaching self-sufficiency). That is why a well-ordered society protects and encourages marriage in the first place.

Redefining (or “undefining”) marriage so that the state comes to embrace same-sex relationships as equally beneficial would deprive a class of children of their birthright to be raised by their natural mother and father. It would advance the notion that children do not need both a mother and a father, let alone their own mother and father. Same-sex parenting would send the message that parenting is not naturally gendered. There would be nothing known as “mothering” or “fathering,” only unisex “parenting.” Both culture and law would be unable to stress the important role that fathers play in their children’s lives without giving offense to “alternative” families in which there simply is no father. This would have disastrous effects for our nation’s children. Even the left-leaning research organization Child Trends affirms the importance of married mothers and fathers to child well-being. In a research brief summing up the scholarly consensus, they write: 

Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes. . . . There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents.  

Regardless of the name given to it, the state’s promotion of any pairing of adults as the functional equivalent of marriage would eliminate in law and weaken in culture the ideal that children should be raised by their married, natural parents. The public meaning and purpose of marriage would be ended; marriage would be redefined as merely a private relationship of consenting adults, and parenthood as merely a legal status applied to those who choose to take responsibility for a child. The social function marriage plays in society — providing children with their natural mother and father — would be lost.

No longer seeing the point of public ratification of a strictly personal relationship, many people would cease to get or stay married. As the marriage rate fell, we would also see higher rates of divorce, cohabitation, and non-marital childbearing. As marriage came to be understood as simply a private relationship, the sense of its importance would erode. Traditional marriage would become one lifestyle and family choice among many — one that could not legitimately be given a privileged status in law. That would eliminate the ideal of marriage as the place to bear and rear children. We’ve already seen these developments in several European nations.

To take Kmiec’s reasoning to its logical conclusion entails state recognition of polygamy and polyamory. Some, no doubt, will cry that this is just extremist slippery-slope reasoning, but the conclusion follows strictly from Kmiec’s principle: If some religions favor polygamous and polyamorous relationships, and if the state is supposed to be neutral among competing voluntary arrangements of adults, then on what grounds could the state refuse to recognize polygamous and polyamorous civil unions?

No matter what, the law will teach. Either it will teach that marriage exists as a natural institution with the public purpose of joining one man and one woman as husband and wife, ready to become father and mother to their children; or it will teach that marriage (or whatever we now call it) is just a creation of the state meant to recognize adults’ private sexual choices and fulfill their desires. Neither option is neutral. And, contra Kmiec, neither is sectarian. But, for children and for society, only one is sound. 

– Ryan T. Anderson is the editor of Public Discourse: Ethics, Law, and the Common Good.