Monday, June 13, 2005

GUEST POST -- Why American Liberty Says No to Gay Marriage -- by M.W. Barker

Posted by Craig Westover | 7:04 PM |  

I need to thank Craig Westover for the generous invitation to publish this piece on his blog. I also wish to thank all the participants in the civil debate of these issues that’s been held here. What follows is a summary of my thoughts in response to the posts and articles linked in the text and the comment threads attached to some of them. While I live outside Minnesota, I think the case I make stands on its merits at the state or national level. I offer it for your consideration and further debate.
--M.W. Barker

My thanks to Mr. Barker for both his comments on my initial post and this piece, which most certainly furthers the discussion.
-- Craig Westover


by M.W. Barker

Craig Westover, shadowing the opinions of Dale Carpenter, makes a “conservative case” for gay marriage in his recent post responding to Katherine Kersten’s June 2 column in support of Minnesota’s marriage amendment. I think it’s fair to summarize Westover’s argument this way:

1. Society needs stable families.
2. Marriage provides stability to families.
3. Gay families exist in our society. Therefore,
4. Conservatives should favor extending marriage to gay families.

Westover opposes the marriage-defining constitutional amendment passed by the Minnesota House, arguing that it inappropriately “legislates from the constitution” by removing the possibility of gay marriage from legislative debate.

From this position, Westover challenges defenders of traditional marriage: Given that the amendment posits the superiority of heterosexual marriage for providing family stability, how can you advocate its ratification without also suggesting that children in gay families should be removed and placed with heterosexual parents?

One must grant that by arguing for traditional marriage predominantly from its status as a beneficial social norm, as Chuck Darrell of Minnesota for Marriage and Kersten have, advocates are vulnerable to the emotional challenge of the individual case. Amendment promoters need to demonstrate that the limited definition of marriage expressed in the amendment is not an assertion of mere political power, riding a wave of homophobic public opinion, but actually offers necessary protection to all citizens. Is there such a principled answer defenders of traditional marriage can give?

Yes there is.

The answer is that the fundamentally American understanding of liberty demands both the preservation of traditional marriage and respect for the integrity of those, including gays and lesbians, who have been granted parental responsibilities where marriage is not possible. We must insist upon adherence to self-evident truth, while at the same time denying the enforcement, as law, of even strong social norms.

The necessity of allegiance to self-evident truth underlies our constitutional order and was expressed most memorably by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident...” Every form of tyranny insists on the government’s prerogative to make truth subject to state authority. (Consider as examples the enforced falsehoods behind Nazism, Communism or Jim Crow.) So when those entrusted with governing power rule that citizens must submit to a self-evident falsehood—as courts have recently done in denying the inherent and obvious distinction between a heterosexual couple and a homosexual couple—the people must deny their government this power.

That is why such instances require, not renewed legislative debate, but constitutional amendment. Self-evident truth is not debatable and must be placed beyond the reach of government’s coercive power.

At the same time, it must be understood that a strong and enduring social norm, while the natural _expression of self-evident truth, is distinct from it. Hence, while laws may indeed encourage conformity to such norms (recognizing the strong and self-evident correlation between certain norms and societal health) they must stop short of requiring compliance (bowing, as they must, to the self-evident reality that adherence to norms does not, by itself, determine outcomes).

So where does this leave us in the same-sex marriage debate?

Are amendments like Minnesota’s an inappropriate assertion of political power in an attempt to legally enforce a mere social norm? No. And here we must point out a fault in Westover’s assumptions. Carefully worded amendments like Minnesota’s assert only the distinction, not any inherent superiority, of monogamous heterosexual marriage. Thus they do not sanction forced compliance with this social norm. They only require the recognition of self-evident truth, which the preservation of liberty demands.

But doesn’t this deny children in gay households the stability they need? No. Here again, it is necessary to point out a fallacy in Westover’s argument. Correlation does not equal causation. Westover’s case posits marriage as the source of stability because there is a strong correlation between marriage and family stability. But it must be noted that other factors correlate with family stability as well: steady employment, home ownership, education level and maturity of the parents, etc. If marriage in and of itself guaranteed good outcomes for children, we should not just allow it for gays, we should require it for everyone.

Looking to the other side of the debate, traditional-marriage defenders must not pit an ideal against the best available option in the individual case. The correlation/causation fallacy must not be used on this side to argue that homosexuality is inherently less stable than heterosexuality or that sexual orientation must take precedence over other stabilizing factors. All responsible adults who legitimately take up parenting obligations and handle them with integrity deserve society’s respect. It must be acknowledged that conformity to a normative ideal, though of high value generally, does not guarantee improvement in every case. (For example, we do not, outside of abuse, advocate removal of a fatherless child from the care of his mother and grandmother to place him with married strangers). Gay couples can, and do in many individual cases, offer the best option our free society can provide for the care of the children in their households.

This understanding equates the societal respect due gay couples with other, non-sexual relationships. Don’t the intimate, committed relationships of gays and lesbians deserve at least an equivalent place in society to that accorded heterosexual relationships? The marital distinction afforded heterosexual pairings is rooted solely in its reproductive potential, so it’s hard to see what self-evidently unique stake wider society has in gay sexuality as distinct from other factors that may contribute societal benefits. This does not mean that many of the obligations and benefits presently given to married couples necessarily can’t or shouldn’t be extended to others who have household or child-rearing responsibilities.

As long as the self-evident distinction between the heterosexual relationship and all others is maintained, we can agree with Westover and Carpenter that these issues are properly the subject of legislative debate.


M.W. Barker is a freelance writer. He lives in North Carolina.