Friday, January 23, 2004

Some thoughts on gay marriage

Matthew responds to a question on my link to the story about Ohio's new ban on gay marriage. Clayton had wondered whether there were any genuinely good arguments against legalization of gay marriage. Matthew points to Margaret A. Somerville as an example of a person who's provided a secular argument against marriage. We should remember, of course, that 'secular' doesn't necessarily imply 'good'. In this particular case, however, I believe Professor Somervile's argument to be neither secular nor good. She thinks there are important differences between the question of recognition of same-sex marriage and that of the granting of recognition for same-sex partnerships. And so do I. But I don't think it plays out the way she does:
Sexual identity and behaviour are primarily personal, private matters -- although some people, in some circumstances, may choose to make the personal political. For religious reasons, or otherwise, some regard homosexual behaviour as immoral. They have a right to such a belief.... But, in a secular, democratic society that respects human rights and constitutionally protects people against discrimination, that belief itself (as compared with the fact that they hold that belief) cannot inform law or public policy. ... Marriage is a different matter. It is both a civil and religious institution and it cannot be changed in its civil aspects without affecting its religious elements. That means that religions have a valid voice in influencing the decision, especially when the change goes to the inherent nature of marriage.
Why is the legal institution of marriage a religious institution? If marriage is actually a fundamentally religious arrangement, then that is exactly a reason why the government should stay out of it. We don't think our governments should regulate tithing which is both religious and civil (in the sense in which some churches provide valuable charitable services with their funds). Of course, this argument doesn't go through, because marriage needn't be a religious instution. There are perfectly good secular reasons to have families and marriage-like partnerships. I think part of the problem is that Professor Somerville, like so many people, has a tendency to conflate morality with religion. This quote is extremely troubling:
Opposing same-sex marriage for secular reasons is not, however, the same as opposing it just on moral or religious grounds. The former are a valid basis for public policy and law and should be taken into account by all politicians.
Surely she doesn't believe that moral beliefs are not permitted to influence policy! There's a very good moral reason that there's a law against, say, murder. It's that murder is immoral. Of course, a good many people take their morality from their religions. There are lots of problems with divine command theory, and I don't want to go into them today, but I hope we can agree that there is conceptual space for morality without religion. That's the whole point of a government free of religion -- it's free to do the moral thing without the complication and interference of a religion. Somerville does mention two secular arguments against gay marriage:
Secular reasons for opposing same-sex marriage include the idea that marriage could no longer institutionalize and symbolize the inherently procreative relationship between a man and a woman.
This seems half-reasonable... but I'm left wondering why we should care. What's so important about the inherenty procreative relationship between a man and a woman? It's not like we have a problem with a dwindling population.
And marriage could not establish the general norm that children have a right to know and be brought up by their biological parents and to identify their genetic relatives. These functions of marriage are important for both individuals and society, especially children.
Why not? Because all the kids that would be born of heterosexual couples will suddenly appear in the custody of gay parents instead? Who are the kids that Professor Somervile is worried about losing genetic identity? How would gay marriage hurt them? (One must assume, of course, that Professor Somerville is also opposed to adoption.)

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