Patrick Lee, Ph.D., is the John N. and Jamie D. McAleer professor of bioethics and director of the Institute of Bioethics at Franciscan University of Steubenville, Ohio.
The main argument proposed by those seeking to redefine marriage so that same-sex couples can be legally declared married is that homosexual persons are being unjustly denied a fundamental right. Everyone has a fundamental right to marry — the argument goes — but homosexuals are denied this right.
But this argument simply begs the question; it presupposes a particular — and false — answer to the question: What is marriage? A right to marry does not give people the right to compel everyone else to treat an entirely different kind of relationship they might have as if it were marriage.
The state does not create marriage, but should recognize and promote it. Prior to any pronouncement by a judge or legislator, men and women fall in love, long to become one — bodily, emotionally and spiritually — in the kind of union that would be extended and unfolded in procreating and rearing children together. This is a distinctive way in which men and women flourish — precisely as man and woman, as complementary persons. And this is the kind of relationship — not to be confused with a romantic relationship together with cohabiting, with no intrinsic orientation to children — in which the state has an interest.
Marriage is a multidimensional union: In the marital act, the man and the woman become organically or biologically one — united as the single subject of a single biological action, something not true of sexual acts other than male-female genital intercourse. The bodily, emotional and spiritual union of husband and wife in marriage is not a mere means in relation to children, but is good in itself — and so men and women who cannot procreate can still be married.
At the same time, marriage is intrinsically oriented to procreation, for it is the kind of union that would be naturally fulfilled by procreating and rearing children together, though not every marriage reaches that fruition.
The state has no public interest in romantic relationships as such. But the state does have an interest in recognizing and promoting marriage because the bond of marriage unites men and women to each other and to whatever children may result from the union. Marriage provides the ideal framework in which to conceive, nurture and protect children, and promoting marriage encourages men and women to marry before they conceive children.
So the state’s granting marriage licenses to opposite-sex couples but not same-sex couples is not unjust discrimination — just as it is not unjust for it to refrain from granting marriage licenses to 12-year-olds or to those already married. Like 12-year-olds and those already married, same-sex couples are simply unable to form the unique kind of relationship that marriage is and that the state has a public interest in promoting.
Same-sex couples and opposite-sex couples are not similarly situated with respect to the purpose of marriage laws; they are dissimilar precisely in that respect in which the state has an interest.
Equal rights for all? Yes, absolutely. But that does not imply a right to suppress from public discourse the recognition of what is specific and distinctive of marriage.