The Conversation

Same-sex marriage and the balance of compulsion

Erick Erickson at RedState had a post this morning making the case that same-sex marriage is incompatible with religious freedom:

Within a year or two we will see Christian schools attacked for refusing to admit students whose parents are gay. We will see churches suffer the loss of their tax exempt status for refusing to hold gay weddings. We will see private businesses shut down because they refuse to treat as legitimate that which perverts God’s own established plan. In some places this is already happening.

The left cannot allow Christians to continue to preach the full gospel. We already see this in, of all places, Canada. Gay marriage is incompatible with a religion that preaches that the unrepentant are condemned, even of a sin the world has decided is not one. The religious freedom will eventually be ended through the judiciary. We should work to extend that freedom as long as we can.

Now many of you have read through this and you are shaking your head in denial. “No way this is possible,” you say. But then just a decade ago no one seriously considered gay marriage as possible. And we are already seeing signs we’re headed in this direction. It’s coming. Get ready.

Libertarians will have to decide which they value more — the ability of a single digit percentage of Americans to get married or the first amendment. The two are not compatible.

Personally, I've never deployed a religious, or even moral, argument in defense of traditional marriage.  I guess it's hard to completely separate such a concept from moral discussion - clearly, we regard adultery as immoral, not merely a technical violation of a legal contract - but my regard for the special status of marriage between men and women is a fairly antiseptic matter of sociology.  I don't think any civilization can endure for very long without it.  It is a block that cannot be easily pulled from the great Jenga tower of a healthy society.  

You can be the most dispassionate atheist in the world and still understand society's enormous need for men and women to join in stable unions to raise multiple children.  We have a positive social interest in actively encouraging this, not merely tolerating it as a lifestyle choice.  (And it's not just about child-rearing, because those stable unions between men and women are an important component of social and economic independence, even if a given couple never raises any kids.)

But I also appreciate the religious beliefs that illuminate many people's understanding of marriage.  It has great significance in just about every religious tradition.  A few decades ago, it would have been entirely uncontroversial to describe marriage as "sacred."

I've been nursing the same doubts about the coming gay-marriage realignment that Erick expresses.  It will be necessary to force a very large number of people to recognize these marriages, and some will perhaps be compelled to participate in them.  Erick mentions that we have already seen "florists, bakers, and photographers suffer because they have refused to go along with the cultural shift toward gay marriage."  It may become difficult to remain in business without accommodating same-sex ceremonies.  I haven't heard any serious discussion of passing laws that would acknowledge any right of refusal.  If the same-sex marriage movement persists in comparing itself to the civil-rights movement, I don't see how there could be any.

And to be fair to the other side, I can't imagine people joined in a same-sex marriage will be comfortable with the ability of others to deny its validity.  Universal social recognition is an important goal of marriage.  It's a promise two people make to each other, but it is also a bond that others have an obligation to acknowledge.

From the strictly libertarian point of view, traditional marriage is a practice consistent with general human behavior and biology, seriously opposed by only a very small minority of the population.  A relatively minor amount of force is needed to maintain this practice, especially since civil-union arrangements and voluntary corporate polices have extended most of the practical benefits of marriage to same-sex unions.  Changing the definition of marriage will require the deployment of much more force against a far larger segment of the populace - public opinion polls suggest they becoming a minority, but it's a sizable minority. 

That's not necessarily an ironclad argument against same-sex marriage; modern America is all about forcing people to do what strong political coalitions deem virtuous.  But it's worth thinking about, as is the rapidly fading concept of individual religious conscience trumping collective will.


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