Saturday, December 07, 2013

The name of the thing: what is marriage?

The media and various judicial departments are full of the controversy as to whether marriage laws deny some classes of people (plaintiffs are generally gay or lesbian or both, and attached to partners of the same sex) the "equal protection of the laws." A number of courts, including the Supreme Court of Massachusetts and the federal district court for the Northern District of California have ruled that they do. Other courts have ruled otherwise, or have yet to make a definitive ruling one way or the other.

The opinions of various courts that have mandated a revision of previous marriage statutes all have a common flaw: they either have failed to define what marriage IS, or have arrived at a definition at the conclusion of their deliberations, rather than defining their terms a priori considering the question. In the seminal case, Hillary Goodridge vs. Department of Public Healthin the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts, Chief Justice Marshall began his majority opinion, "Marriage is a vital social institution." OK. That's a descriptive, and sets a value, but does not define the content of this vital social institution, only that it is vital and social.

That marriage had a legal definition was readily acknowledged by Justice Marshall: "The everyday meaning of "marriage" is "[t]he legal union of a man and woman as husband and wife," Black's Law Dictionary 986 (7th ed. 1999), and the plaintiffs do not argue that the term "marriage" has ever had a different meaning under Massachusetts law."

In conclusion, Marshall wrote "We construe civil marriage to mean the voluntary union of two persons as spouses, to the exclusion of all others," which is a way of saying, we have no idea what it really consists of or what purpose it serves, but it just is. Implicitly, the court defined marriage as a desirable bundle of benefits which nobody should be deprived of. But it failed to define the term BEFORE analyzing the question before it.

Marshall stated the question before the court as, "whether, consistent with the Massachusetts Constitution, the Commonwealth may deny the protections, benefits, and obligations conferred by civil marriage to two individuals of the same sex who wish to marry." How can anyone consider that question without knowing what marriage consists of? Failing to do so, it had not even been established that the marriage laws of the Commonwealth DID deny the protections, benefits and obligations conferred by civil marriage to anyone at all.

The court's decision explicitly overturned the existing statutory definition, on the grounds that the definition deprived a class of persons of the equal protection of the laws. But if so, what then IS a marriage? Having thrown out one definition, the court was able to provide only the most tenuous substitute. Under the court's new definition, clearly marriage has absolutely nothing to do with sex, which raises the question, what does sexual orientation have to do with it either? And why have any marriage laws at all?

The simple historical fact is, every variety of marriage ever instituted in any human society came into being because the human species is divided into two sexes, men and women, and the volatile relationship between these two sexes needed some definition and regulation to sustain any functional community or social context.

With that commonality, different societies have instituted polygamy, polyandry, polygyny, marriage of one man and one woman for life, monomgamous marriage in which one or both partners are expected to have informal lisasons on the side, arranged marriages, giving of daughters to the suitor who offers the parents the highest bride price, marriage limited by clan affiliation, sacred marriage, marriage by free choice of the individuals concerned... but all these variations concern the union of male and female.

Some societies have openly accepted homosexuality in various contexts, temporary or long-term, by people also married to a husband or wife, or distinct from marriage, and others have discouraged or punished it. Some societies have hung property relations and diplomatic relations unto marriage, others have not. But all marriage has been a response to the distinction between men and women, which pre-dates any human constitution or form of government, and the volatile complementarity between the two.

Unfortunately, this fundamental point was never argued in the the Goodridge case. Instead the state of Massachusetts offered "three legislative rationales for prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying: (1) providing a "favorable setting for procreation"; (2) ensuring the optimal setting for child rearing, which the department defines as "a two-parent family with one parent of each sex"; and (3) preserving scarce State and private financial resources." Those were weak arguments, and entirely unnecessary.

When the New York Court of Appeals turned down the argument that the state had a constitutional obligation to license same-sex couples as marriage, Chief Judge Judith Kaye dissented, citing as persuasive authority the assertion in Halpern v. Attorney Gen. of Canada "‘an argument that marriage is heterosexual because it ‘just is’ amounts to circular reasoning." True, no legal term can assume any definition because "it just is." What Kaye, and the Canadian court she referenced, both failed to do, was to define what, then, marriage IS.

It can no more be "whatever I find convenient at the moment" than it can be "whatever it always has been." And a consistent definition that has substance and integrity must PRECEDE any rational legal analysis. The definition cannot be "something broad enough to include gay men and lesbians" just because a judge desires to include them.

When the challenge to Proposition 8 in California was heard by federal judge Vaughn Walker, unlike the court in Massachusetts, Walker scarcely bothered to consider defining the most essential term at issue. Trial testimony and argument, and Walker's analysis, turned primarily on whether California has an "interest" in "differentiating between same-sex and opposite-sex unions." But whether state law had even done so cannot be weighed with integrity, without first establishing what is a marriage. The definition of a term cannot flow implicitly from a conclusion when the term itself was left amorphous for purpose of argument.

A great deal of Walker's opinion is devoted to weighing the credibility of various witnesses about the sociological benefits or harms of licensing or not licensing same-sex couples as a marriage. None of that is particularly relevant to the question, has anyone been denied the equal protection of the laws in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment?

Among other things, Walker ruled that "A PRIVATE MORAL VIEW THAT SAME-SEX COUPLES ARE INFERIOR TO OPPOSITE-SEX COUPLES IS NOT A PROPER BASIS FOR LEGISLATION." Of course it isn't - and a weakness in the ad hoc arguments by the ad hoc assemblage defending Prop 8 was reliance on arguments that did so. But that doesn't ipso facto mean that any marriage law is founded on such a private moral view. One cannot say it does, without defining what marriage is.

What a federal judge of unbiased integrity in Walker's position would have done, is refer back to all parties for additional briefing, "What is marriage, how is it defined, what authority sustains the definition you argue for, and with reference to that definition, how does your desired outcome retain any merit?"

New York state has a marriage law which suffers none of the deficiencies of judicial rulings in Massachusetts, California, and elsewhere. In New York, the legislature, not the courts, amended the statute, and thereby amended the civil definition of marriage. In essence, the people of New York decided, we will recognize the specific quasi-sexual human relationships that unite two men or two women as a couple, extending licensing these relationships, and giving them the name of marriage.

There is no constitutional reason the people of a state cannot do that. Quite properly, New York did not establish a test that only men, or women, qualified as homosexual may enter into a same-sex relationship. The law does not discriminate. Clerks issuing licenses do not inquire "are you gay or straight?" just as clerks never have inquired or a man and a woman applying for a marriage license "are either of you gay?"

Relationships are not entitled to the equal protection of the laws. If they were, business owners would sue for the tax exemption of non-profits, while non-profit organizations would sue for the right to engage in commerce (without losing their tax exemptions). Individual persons are entitled to the equal protection of the laws.

So long as any individual man, and any individual woman, are able to enter into marriage, the Fourteenth Amendment is satisfied. The fact that some men, and some women, prefer to be celibate, to enter holy orders, to enter into one or another kind of same-sex relationship, prefer to engage in group sex with a variety of partners, prefer to support themselves by prostitution, is entirely irrelevant. None of the above are entitled to a marriage license, unless they enter into what the law defines as a marriage.

Racial restrictions were thrown out because race is of no relevance to marriage. Sex is, however, very much of the essence in marriage. Sex is not of the essence to whether an individual can write a legal brief, design a highway bridge, or change a diaper. Race is no predictor of whether any given individual can earn a Ph.D. There is no reason that the people of a state may not write laws concerning same-sex couples, but equal protection of the laws is not offended if the people of a state don't think these particular relationships are worth writing laws about.


William Dalton said...


I find merit in your observation that those courts that have struck down marriage laws that limit the definition to the union of a man and a woman have failed to give a new definition to replace it. This is important. If the traditional definition of marriage denies equal protection to gay couples because it denies them the legal benefits accorded to married individuals – automatic inheritance, exemption from taxes and claims of creditors upon the death of one spouse, joint income tax filing and marital deductions, entitlement to spousal Social Security benefits, etc. – it also denies those benefits to other couples who are neither “gay” nor married. If a young woman decides to forego marriage and having children in order to care for an invalid parent, why should the commitment she shows to establish that two person household be given less recognition and societal benefits than either traditional or same-sex marriages? Two sisters who choose to do the same for each other? Two people who have no sexual drive for one another or anyone else, but find one another to be excellent life companions and housemates? All of these arrangements have the same social utility as any childless marriage, gay or straight, and have the same equal protection argument to be treated the same.

William Dalton said...

The fact is that marriage existed and its definition was well known and not in dispute long before either the church or the state existed or sought to regulate marriage through licenses or ceremonies to solemnize them. They have existed ever since God created Man male and female, such that a man will leave his father and his mother and cleave unto his wife. The Church, and later the modern State, began to regulate marriages for the protection of children and, later, for the protection of the State. Neither wanted children born to unmarried women because they would be a burden on the community and the State. Neither wanted unmarried women to have sex because they would be a temptation to married men, who might then leave their wives, or at least be more likely to neglect and mistreat them and their children. So the law punished not only rape and adultery – the carnal knowledge of a woman who belonged to another man, whether her father or husband. The law punished fornication – the carnal knowledge by a man of any woman not his wife. And to prevent men from avoiding punishment by simply saying, “I take this woman as my wife”, and then leaving her, the law said, No, this marriage must be solemnized before the whole community, and once it is, you can’t leave and abandon your wife without a legally sanctioned and adjudicated divorce, or the law will punish you for doing so. And then the State instituted systems of licensing to assure that only persons not already married might marry another, and then required blood tests, to avoid the spread of venereal diseases, etc. The Mosaic Code forbade incestuous marriages, singly or in multiples, to prevent families and households from being torn apart by the resentments and rivalries that would ensue. And it forbade homosexual and bestial relationships, and even “spilling one’s seed” because these were ways men could find sexual release and satisfaction while avoiding their marital responsibilities to give both attention and children to their wives.

Well, the law today no longer punishes sex outside of marriage. Court rulings “interpreting” the Constitution have even forbade lawmakers from doing so. It no longer punishes having children outside of marriage, in fact showing greater favor to the unmarried mother in eligibility for welfare benefits. It no longer “protects” marriage or women from being abandoned by their husbands, by allowing divorce without substantive reasons and by encouraging women to be independent and thus less likely to be eligible for court ordered support from their husbands. And, of course, the courts have no rhyme or reason to protect or preserve “gay marriages”. They can treat them like any other partnership, simply supervising the division of partnership property when either party seeks a dissolution (and like other partnerships there is no longer a reason to restrict marital partnerships to two partners).

William Dalton said...

Because the legal status of marriage has been reduced by legislation and court decisions to having the practical equivalence of business partnerships there no longer exists a reason to restrict or license them. The fact that marriage laws and licenses so no longer serve a public purpose may or may not make marriage statutes suspect as imposing a substantial burden without a rational basis, but I think the denial of equal protection regarding the enjoyment of legally created benefits certainly does so.

Anonymous said...

Siarlys, just thought I'd drop a not to let you know I won't be able to continue our discussion at Rod's blog, in that for some reason Rod has decided to ban me once again. Insufficiently deferential attitude, I gather. Good luck over there, and no hard feelings.

Church Lady

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Church Lady, in case you drop by again, I'm a bit disappointed to lose the challenge of your vociferous prose. I suppose I found your certainty in your own righteousness aggravating, but I'm sure it looked different to you. Incidentally, I am perhaps the only person commenting at Rod Dreher who actually had the experience of sitting at a double desk with an ink well in front of me, dipping a metal tip into it to write with, and applying blotter paper before turning exercises in to be graded. I can't recall whether the student sitting in front of me was a girl, or if so, whether she had pigtails. But the teacher was an old school British type, and nobody would have dreamed of dipping a pigtail into the ink well if the opportunity had been present.