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Judicial restraints

Issue: "The Marriage Amendment," June 8, 2002

Certain institutions are so crucial to a decent society-and yet so easy to ruin-that law steps in to shield and honor them. Preeminent among these is marriage, the seed of the family.

To make sure that only those old enough to know what they are doing can get married, the law sets age limits. To make sure that no one is married in careless haste, it decrees waiting periods. To protect the weak and vulnerable, it declares what the spouses owe not only to each other, but to the children that come from their union. To enforce these protections, it keeps track of who is married. Finally, in gratitude for the benefits of marriage and in recognition of its burdens, the law invests marriage with benefits and privileges that the unmarried do not enjoy.

One can honor and cherish marriage only with a firm understanding of what marriage is. Mere sex is not enough to make a marriage. Child abusers are not married to their victims; people who practice bestiality are not married to their pets; neither heterosexuals nor homosexuals are married to their live-ins. Such relationships are either incapable of giving rise to families at all, or incapable of giving rise to healthy and stable families that provide security and sound models to children.

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You would think that people who do not believe in the institution of marriage would simply seek to have it abolished. Today they are more subtle; they betray it with a kiss. Rather than declaring that nobody should be married, they declare that anyone can be married. Their demand is that people who are not married be treated by the law as though they are. The main form of the demand is equivalency between same-sex union and the union of a man and a woman.

Christians have a number of strong reasons to join with other citizens to safeguard the legal definition of marriage. We share two of these reasons with nonbelievers. First and most obvious, marriage is procreative. Although occasionally a marriage is incapable of producing children, fruitfulness is the natural tendency of union between man and woman. The second is that marriage is a partnership in procreation, a union not only for bringing babies forth but for raising them. All children need both a mom and a dad, and the marriage of mom and dad helps keep them together. These reasons for protecting the legal definition can be understood by anyone, whether Christian or not.

We also have additional reasons that are distinct to the Christian faith. When a husband and wife are united to Christ, they become a living sign of His sacrificial love for the church and the church's adoring response. Awed, Paul calls matrimony one of God's "mysteries" (Ephesians 5:31-32). This sign is provided first for believers, to deepen and edify their faith. But it is also for nonbelievers. Through it, they are offered a glimpse of holy purity that the fallen world cannot provide, a glimpse which invites them into grace. These "pearls" are not the sorts of arguments that can be flung about in the barnyard-but they ought to increase our zeal for the ones that can be.

The legal dangers to marriage are not difficult to understand. First, even in states where legislatures are too sensible to define unmarried people as "married," judges may invoke constitutional language about equality to force them to do so. Second, because of the Constitution's "Full Faith and Credit" clause, what one state does affects all the others. If Sam marries his wife in California, Texas will also call the pair married. So what happens if California lets Ernest "marry" another man? Texas might be forced to recognize the "marriage" too. It is as though one state could make binding laws for all the others.

The solution is a legal definition of marriage that applies across state lines. Such a feat can be accomplished only by constitutional amendment, but great needs call forth great efforts: A Federal Marriage Amendment (FMA) has just been proposed in Congress with sponsors from both parties. Spearheading the drive for the FMA is the Alliance for Marriage (AFM), founded and organized by Matt Daniels. Mr. Daniels is an evangelical Christian. However, the AFM has put together an astonishingly broad coalition including Protestants, Catholics, the historical black churches, Jews, Muslims, members of other religions, and secular pro-family groups. As it was with the 19th-century drive to abolish slavery, so it is with the 21st-century drive to defend marriage: Success requires that the movement be more than a Christian pet project, but the leadership of the movement is dedicated to the leadership of Christ.

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