Monday, May 12, 2014

Defining Marriage: Discrimination or Distinction?

The Wilberforce Society of Patrick Henry College recently wrote a briefing on the state of the same-sex marriage debate in the Commonwealth of Virginia. As many of our states are involved in similar debates, we believe it would be helpful to share their perspective.

“At a news conference in Richmond, [Attorney General Mark] Herring said that the state has been on the wrong side of landmark legal battles involving school desegregation, interracial marriage, and single-sex education.”

~ The Washington Post, “Va. Republicans Ready to Defend Same-Sex Marriage Ban,” January 23, 2014

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring opposes a gay-marriage ban in his state, calling it a violation of Virginians’ rights. According to a January 23rd NPR article, Herring voted against “marriage equality” in 2006 in the state Senate, but now identifies that vote as hurtful discrimination.

But the attempt to connect a defense of traditional marriage with hurtful discrimination is a false analogy. The ban on gay marriage is not an issue of discrimination or denial of rights. It simply preserves the specificity of a definition. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines marriage primarily as “the relationship that exists between a husband and wife.” While a secondary definition includes “a similar relationship between people of the same sex,” that definition relies on the similarity of the second relationship to the common man understanding of marriage as an institution between one man and one woman. The relationship between a husband and wife is the ultimate reference point.

If marriage inherently and traditionally involves union with one person of the opposite sex, those who choose to engage in a homosexual relationship should not complain just because they are not included in that definition. It is the role of definition to make distinctions. Robin Phillips expressed the situation well in an article for World Magazine: “Just as we shouldn’t feel the need to change the definition of marriage to include celibacy so that the pope can have ‘equal access’ to the institution, so we shouldn’t feel the need to change the definition of marriage so that homosexuals can begin to want access to it.” The freedom to marry may well be a fundamental right, as Herring suggests, but no one is banned from monogamous cohabitation with a partner of their choosing in Virginia.

So what appropriate distinctions ought a definition of marriage make? What distinguishes the marriage debate from debates on discrimination based on race or sex?

First, racial discrimination fundamentally differs from the same-sex marriage debate. Race is a fixed physical characteristic, whereas homosexuality is a lifestyle choice. It is about creating one’s own identity. Even if one believes people are born homosexual, they still have a choice as to whether or not they act on that inclination. One has no choice as to one’s race. Additionally, there is a definitive and physiological difference between men and women. Race doesn’t affect how one functions in a marriage; sex does.

Second, discrimination based on sex also differs from banning same-sex marriage, both in its purpose and in its effects. A prime example of this can be found in the debate over single-sex education discrimination. The institution of education and the institution of marriage serve two different purposes, and a distinction between sexes might detract from the purpose of education while furthering the purpose of marriage. In other words, a distinction which is illegitimate in one case is not necessarily illegitimate in another. Furthermore, being denied the title of marriage does not prevent one from having a successful career or living a full life. Being denied an equal education can. Regardless of whether it is morally right or wrong, the fact is that Virginia is not prohibiting people from engaging in homosexual behavior. The state has simply refused to expand a definition.

In our desire to be heroes, the champions of liberty and civil rights, let us not forget that legitimate distinctions are just. We are not repeating the mistake of racial discrimination. We are not perpetrating unfair and unjust bigotry. We are standing for the right to make the distinctions necessary for a proper definition of marriage.​

Written by the Wilberforce Society of Patrick Henry College.
Picture: Mark Herring, Attorney General of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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