The Random House Unabridged Dictionary defines marriage as “the social institution under which a man and woman establish their decision to live as husband and wife by legal commitments, religious ceremonies, etc.” This definition reflects the current predominating political and moral consensus regarding the state of marriage; particularly that marriage is an institution reserved for opposite-sex couples and that the marriage contract cannot, by definition, be entered into by same-sex couples.
The debate surrounding same sex marriage has raged for more than three decades and has been based largely on the desire of same sex couples to be permitted the same legal conventions provided by marriage as their opposite-sex counterparts enjoy; namely that they be legally permitted to share insurance coverage, property ownership, and other legal conventions in the same manner as any other couple which has chosen to make a lifetime commitment.
Interestingly, as the issue of same sex marriage has landed in the nation’s courts, the courts have struggled to define marriage in a legal sense. Tradition has indeed dictated that marriage take place between a man and a woman. This tradition is largely based on the fact that marriage, even though it contains elements of a legal contract, is generally surrounded by religious aspects, i.e., the marriage ceremony. This religious component of the marriage contract is perhaps the stumbling block to same sex marriage acceptance. Traditions are notoriously difficult to change.
As the courts of the nation struggle to define marriage in a legal sense, devoid of its religiousness, the nation’s politicians are not required to follow the same path. In fact, the majority of American politicians have publicly stated that marriage is a state that is, in their interpretation, to be entered into between a man and a woman. Where then, does this leave same sex couples?
It was the courts of Hawaii, Massachusetts and Vermont that brought the issue to the forefront when they elected to recognize same-sex couples’ right to enter into a legal marriage contract. Since that time, proponents and opponents have struggled not only to gain control of state courts and lawmakers, but they have taken their battle to the top by asking that the office of the president as well as the nation’s Supreme Court acknowledge one side or another. This fight for legitimization has been the hallmark of the struggle as one side prays for legal rights, regardless of the morality of their situation, and the other seeks to uphold their moral interpretation of the institution of marriage.
Ideally, same sex couples would prefer to have their relationships recognized in more than just a legal sense. This struggle has been identified by some as the “gay agenda”. Opponents assert that same sex couples are attempting to redefine marriage which will subsequently change the value system of the nation. Proponents argue that their struggle is hindered by the nation’s predominating sense of homophobia. Others insist that the courts have no business ruling on the issue at all. With this mishmash of opinions, it stands to reason that the debate will likely rage on for years.
Some courts have elected to define marriage as that which occurs between a man and a woman based on the fact that same sex couples cannot reproduce. This stance however, has inherent problems. Namely that if marriage and parenthood are based on reproduction, then infertile couples could not be considered married. Other courts have traditionally stood on the grounds of their states’ anti-sodomy laws. However, as these laws are stricken from the books, the state’s basis for restricting marriage disappears. It is partially on the stance of antiquated laws that same-sex partners have based their arguments. Certainly, there have been many laws that are based more on morality than on any real legal argument. As these, somewhat ridiculous, laws leave the books, same-sex couples may find their case increases in merit. This is not to say that a victory for same-sex marriage is imminent. Just because such old-fashioned laws are rendered impotent does not mean that the sense of convention that originally drove them into existence has disappeared. It should be interesting to watch the issue heat up anew as the 2008 election grows nearer.