Thursday, October 22, 2009

Marriage Is Not A Right

Subtitled: You Can't Legislate Morality!

Got off topic a few weeks ago in an American Lit class. We were discussing slave narratives in conjunction with early feminist writers like Margaret Fuller. The general point had to do with disenfranchisement - the denial of civil rights.

"This is what gays are going through today," one person said. "They're being denied their rights to marry." A general chorus of amens followed.

I raised my hand.

"I don't think gay marriage is analogous to disenfranchisement," I said. "No law is keeping consenting adults from cohabitating." I probably should have left it at that, but I went on to say, "Marriage isn't even a right." I guess that's how we got off topic.

So for the next 20 minutes we all shared our ignorance. The discussion ranged from efforts at defining marriage to personal testimonies of alleged discrimination against some third cousin's step-son's half-brother who couldn't visit his lover in the hospital.

I raised my hand.

First, no law is denying two consenting competent adults from entering into any legally binding or privilege providing contract. The power of attorney addresses health and hospital issues. Co-signing loans and property titles is done all the time. And one's will covers transfer of property after one's death. So what rights are gays being denied?

Second, marriage is a civic institution (albeit one ineluctably molded by religious values) that has inherent limits. It is between two people, for one. (Polygamy, at least the last time I checked, is still illegal, denying the "rights" of its advocates.) It is serial - at least for those who decide to have multiple marriages. (This, too, denies the "rights" of someone who wants to have multiple concurrent spouses - say in different states.) In other words, marriage is not an unrestrained right - it is an already legally defined and self-limiting concept.

So in an attempt to get back on topic, I concluded, "This is why I believe that the issue of gay marriage is not comparable to disenfranchisement of blacks and women in the 1800s."

Someone responded, "But you can't legislate morality."

To me this was a non-sequitur. But that got me thinking. Hmm - I thought - that's exactly what those in favor of gay marriage are trying to do. They are trying to legislate, and thus institute, a particular set of moral values upon/within the broader American culture. Isn't this what all acts of legislation attempt to do? The question is really, whose set of moral values best promote the welfare of society? (And this post is way too short to address that issue!)

Finally, one woman told an emotional story of how a person she knew of was forcibly removed from his home after his partner died because his name wasn't on the lease, etc. The story was a bit convoluted but there seemed to have been some legitimate legal issues that were violated. At the very minimum, human decency was denied this person.

I felt sad for that guy who lost his home. What happened to him was probably not right. Something should be done to change that, and prevent something like that from ever happening again.

But then, I guess you can't legislate morality.
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