Georgia's legislature, like others around the country, must soon decide how it will respond to pressure from certain segments in our society to broaden the definition of marriage to include homosexual couples. At issue is not just semantics but who will qualify for various legal rights, benefits, and privileges accorded to married people. Emotions on such an issue run high. But it is too important an issue to be decided by popularity polls or perceived political advantage. On what basis can our representatives make such a decision? That is a question which deserves some thought.
Historically, our society has accepted the traditional Judeo-Christian view of marriage as an institution based on a permanent covenant of exclusive commitment between a man and a woman, ordained by God to be the foundation of the family. But as the Christian world view recedes in influence in our increasingly secular age, many people no longer accept that default position as self evident. A vague sense of fairness is all that remains to them as a guide to public policy in such matters. And it seems patently unfair to them that people should be treated differently because of their sexual orientation. Why, they wonder, shouldn't gay couples be given the same rights and privileges as anyone else?
Now, I am myself a Christian and believe for many reasons that it would be better for society if the traditional definition of marriage is retained, or indeed reaffirmed, by law. But I cannot expect secular people to accept some of those reasons, nor should I expect a secular state to conform itself to the Church, which is after all free to maintain its own definitions and standards for the marriages it blesses, no matter what the state does with legal marriage. Therefore, for the sake of argument, I will make the case for reaffirming that marriage should be viewed as a covenant between a man and a woman based on the idea of fairness alone.
Human beings are free to enter into many relationships, formal or informal, permanent or temporary. Why is marriage treated differently from other ones? Why, in other words, is marriage formally recognized and recorded by the state when other relationships are not? There is one simple and sufficient reason. Traditional marriage is a relationship that can reasonably be expected, in the natural course of things, to produce children who will then be raised in the nuclear family which flows from that marriage. In the natural course of things, homosexual unions do not.
Now, the state has a legitimate secular interest in strengthening the traditional family, because it is cheaper and more efficient (and, almost always, more humane) for these children to be cared for by their parents than to have them become wards of the state. That is why married people are granted rights and privileges which do not accrue to other people who happen to be living together for whatever reason. In a day when the government is already burdened with many more entitlements than it can afford to pay for, it makes no sense to extend these benefits to a group of people who lack the biological basis for needing them.
If people choose to be room mates for whatever reason, they are already free under the law to do so. It is not "unfair," nor is it "discriminatory," for the state to refrain from subsidizing that choice when the natural reason for subsidizing it does not exist. In fact, it would be precisely unfair to every taxpayer in the nation for the state to give such people special treatment unless there is a good reason for it. The excellent reason that exists in the case of marriage simply does not apply to homosexual unions. Therefore, simple fairness dictates that the traditional definition of marriage be reaffirmed and upheld by law. The same argument would also disallow creating another category, such as "civil unions" or "domestic partnerships," in which, in effect, the same rights and benefits appropriate to married couples would be inappropriately granted to others through a kind of semantic subterfuge.
As a Christian, I have many other reasons for wanting the state to maintain the traditional view of marriage, some of which are in my mind more important by far than the one I have given here. If people believe that marriage was ordained by God to regulate our sexuality for our ultimate good, and that good and faithful marriages please Him, then those facts will weigh far more heavily with them than mere fairness to taxpayers. Religious people can look at my argument here as one tiny footnote elucidating a small facet of the wisdom of God in setting up marriage the way He did. It also gives them potential common ground with secular people-ground both groups will need if any consensus on which society can operate is to arise.
It is in everyone's interest that such common ground be found and cultivated so that buzz-words like "fairness" are not used uncritically in an emotionally charged debate. If such cultivation happens, our legislators' deliberations may actually be able to partake more of wisdom than of political posturing.
Donald T. Williams, PhD, is Director of the School of Arts and Sciences and Professor of English at Toccoa Falls College in the hills of Northeast Georgia.