Marriage is the seminal and most vital institution in our society. Until very recently, its definition was not controversial. Today, however, the U.S. Supreme Court has just concluded oral arguments on the question of who may define it. That impending judgment may be the Court’s most consequential decision ever.
The High Court will decide two vital issues: whether individual states possess authority to define marriage (review of California’s Proposition 8) and whether Congress exercised proper constitutional authority to define marriage as between one man and one woman for federal purposes (in the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act).
Ultimately, the Court, and the culture, must decide the underlying question: “What is marriage?”
Historically, marriage has been defined by the Genesis account. Until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, it was stewarded solely as an institution of the church. During the Reformation, ecclesiastical authority was forced to share that responsibility with civil authority. Thus, marriage has traditionally been viewed as a church-guided enterprise in obedience to Scripture.
As Jesus taught in Matthew 19:4-6: “Haven’t you read,” he replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Until now, this admonition has always been observed by civil authorities. It has been understood that government should rarely ever “separate” (which means “to set apart, disconnect, or dissociate”) the sacred institution of marriage.
Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, Robert P. George, summarizes the historic or “conjugal” definition of marriage: “The union of one man and one woman who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together…Marriage is valuable in itself, but its inherent orientation to the bearing and rearing of children contributes to its distinctive structure, especially considering norms of monogamy and fidelity.”
In short, marriage—as we have always known it—is unique, and its implications immeasurable. We tamper with God’s first institution at our peril.
Common sense tells us that redefining marriage will adversely affect society in countless ways. Of course, one man/one woman marriage provides for procreation and the rearing of children, and is the natural construct for family, the basic unit of society. As Ryan T. Anderson of the Heritage Foundation puts it, “Americans respect marriage, as the basic building block of all human civilization…[because ]marriage is society’s least restrictive means of ensuring the well-being of children.”
This is not to say that persons of the same gender, for example, two brothers raising their niece, cannot raise a child; or, that a childless husband and wife are not “truly married;” or that a widowed or single parent cannot heroically raise a happy, successful child. Rather, as the conjugal view of marriage observes, the natural rearing of a child by both a father and a mother is the ideal because it provides the best possible arrangement. The nuclear family anchors every strong society because a mom and a dad are both essential to the development of a healthy child.
The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy clarifies, “Given the marital relationship’s natural orientation to children, it is not surprising that, according to the best available sociological evidence, children fare best on virtually every indicator of well-being when reared by their wedded biological parents.”
At the heart of the current debate is the recent effort by some to legalize and equate same-sex “relationships” with the historic, one man/one woman institution of marriage that has been honored for more than five millennia. If the High Court decrees that marriage can now mean anything an interest group wants, which in today’s arguments they seemed hesitant to say, then it will ultimately mean nothing at all. In the few cultures that have tried that dangerous experiment, marriage rates, monogamy and fidelity have soon plummeted, children have suffered, and religious freedom (and the right to stand for traditional marriage and family) has been dramatically eroded.
The idea that nine unelected judges could now alter an institution that existed thousands of years before the formation of our country is staggering. But here we are.
At least in Louisiana, as in most other states, the people adhere to a timeless truth. In 2004 more than 78% of us voted in favor of amending our state constitution to affirm that marriage remains between one man and one woman. Hopefully, the impending rulings by the Supreme Court do not tread on Louisiana sovereignty and force a fight on the redefinition of marriage. If they do, Louisiana stands prepared to defend the timeless truth of traditional marriage.
Gene Mills is the President of the Louisiana Family Forum.