Fighting the Right Fight for Marriage


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With declarations of inevitability by the advocates for same-sex marriage coupled with accusations of bigotry leveled against those who wish to defend marriage as an institution that necessarily includes participation by people of differing genders it can be daunting to stand up in defense of heterosexual marriage. I was impressed with the way Jeffrey Thayne presented a defense of marriage being a necessarily heterosexual institution that showed that such a position need not be based on bigotry. His description of a companionate view of marriage versus a conjugal view of marriage got me wondering – what are we fighting for if we oppose the idea of gay marriage?

Obviously the answer will not be universal for all opponents of same-sex marriage but if we think that we can win the fight while accepting the companionate view that is so prevalent in society we are kidding ourselves. If we are to have any hope of winning this debate it’s time that we acknowledge that the kind of marriage we must be fighting for is as different from what marriage has become in the last few decades as the kind of marriage that same-sex marriage advocates are pushing for. If we believe, and even more importantly if undecided observers believe that what we are arguing for is the status quo in marriage then there is little logical or legal reason for us to emerge victorious.

I’m not confident that the terms companionate marriage and conjugal marriage are widely used; I also fear that those terms may call to mind some distracting connotations so while I appreciate the concepts I am abandoning that terminology. Hopefully I will be able to clearly convey my thoughts without such distinctive terms.

Benefits Associated with Marriage

If civil marriage is simply a package of legal benefits then there is no reason that at least some of those legal benefits that we have attached to the marriage license should not be made readily available to people who do not fit our existing definition of marriage. That is the thinking behind the initial concessions that led to the creation of civil unions and domestic partnerships. Society is not better off withholding things like probate rights and hospital visitation rights from people who have agreed to share their lives with each other simply because they are not related by blood.

On the other hand, there are some benefits to society by promoting the optimal conditions for children to develop into healthy adults. Research is clear that the optimal condition is for children to grow up in a stable family led by both of their biological parents. We can’t pretend that those optimal conditions exist for all children but that doesn’t mean that we can’t acknowledge that no other family configuration has proven to be equal to that standard.

Social Approval

Besides any tangible, legal benefits associated with a marriage license, same-sex marriage advocates argue that there are intangible benefits of social acceptance that come with legally recognized marriage. From all the arguments I have heard, those benefits amount to a mythical social acceptance based on the claim of marriage (as if those who truly are bigoted towards homosexuals would end their bigotry simply based on a legal marriage certificate), and a real legal protection in which they can have some legal recourse when they face discrimination (although that same legal protection can be included in marriage alternatives like civil unions).

Targeting Our Efforts

With the Supreme Court rulings this week I have come to believe that the best way to win this debate is to take away the incentive for gays to feel dissatisfied with what they have. The way to do that is to target our efforts toward promoting aspects of heterosexual marriage that demonstrably benefit society as distinct from those aspects which are essentially the same as other configurations of people choosing to share their lives with each other.

We should push for legal benefits associated with the various family configurations based on their benefits to society rather than on their makeup. In other words, those benefits now associated with marriage which promote human dignity but are not particularly beneficial toward the raising of children should be available to any who have chosen to share their lives with each other whether they be homosexuals or heterosexuals. Ideally these legal affordances would not be associated with the term marriage. In fact, the French have an arrangement much like this called a Civil Solidarity Pact.

In addition to those human dignity benefits, we have encoded into our laws extra benefits that have nothing to do with human dignity per se namely financial benefits such as special tax rates and other financial incentives like the child tax credit. These benefits should be reserved for the situation in which society reaps the benefits, namely when children are being raised.

If we were very clear that the purpose of these benefits was to promote an optimal environment for child rearing we could offer benefits at differing levels based on the degree to which the various family configurations were known to promote the welfare of children. In this case the maximum child tax credit benefits would be available to families led by both biological parents of the children involved. (Some accommodation might need to be made for cases of widows/widowers.) I’m not committed to the details here but I can imagine a lower tier of benefits for blended families that result from divorced or partner-less parents getting married and a still lower tier of benefits for single parents (whether by divorce or simply never having been a partner in parenthood – this is where the exception for widows/widowers kicks in). Also, because the purpose of these benefits is for stable child-rearing environments, the benefits should only be available at the lowest level until the relationship of the couple has been formalized for at least two years unless they formalized it no more than three months after the conception of the child involved. (I would’ve said at least six months before the child was born but nobody should be punished if their child was born premature.)

Besides the child/no child divide we should also have different legally recognized levels of commitment which adjust the financial benefit level of each family. Those who choose the lower commitment level would receive a smaller reduction in their tax rates but they would have the ability to terminate the legal recognition of their relationship much like we have allowed with no-fault divorce. On the other hand, those who opt for a stronger commitment would receive a larger tax rate reduction along with more stringent requirements for terminating the legal recognition of their relationship.

In creating various levels of responsibility and legal/fiscal benefit to legally recognized relationships we would allow government to treat different relationships differently only according to the different levels of benefit those relationships return to society at large while treating all people in legally recognized relationships equally with respect to issues of human dignity. At the same time we would be making it easier for religions to exercise their choice in what legally recognized relationships they would be willing to perform or recognize ecclesiastically.

A Fallback Position

In considering this new approach to defending the type of strong and lasting family structure that is the foundation of healthy societies throughout history I must acknowledge the possibility that it may be too late in this debate to convince the proponents of same sex marriage to relinquish their insistence on applying the term marriage for what they are seeking. If that is the case, defenders of strong stable families headed by a father and a mother – ideally the biological parents of the children in the family – may find that they need to develop some new terminology to distinguish between what they are describing and what we come to know as marriage when this debate concludes.

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