Last Friday, at five minutes before midnight, and just in time for the weekend's Gay Pride parade, the New York state Senate, with the help of four Republicans, voted to establish same-sex marriage in the third largest state in the union. New York is the sixth state to make it legal for homosexuals to marry, more than doubling the proportion of the country by population that now recognizes this arrangement, almost all of it concentrated in the extreme northeast.
In the face of this unholy alliance between government authority and the morally irresponsibly progressive fringe, it is tempting to "get government out of the marriage business" and privatize the whole matter.
It reminds me of the school prayer issue back in Canada. When I was a boy in Ontario, like everyone else at the time, I attended public school. There were no "Christian schools," and there was certainly no homeschooling movement. We began each day with what we called "opening exercises." We would stand beside our desks for the national anthem, bow our heads for the Lord's Prayer, and then sit down for the principal's announcements. There was nothing in Canada like the American First Amendment to prevent these daily religious observances, and I was unaware of any objection to them.
Some years after I graduated, the cultural consensus had disintegrated to the point where schools began alternating between a Christian prayer or reading and readings from other religious holy books, native Indian prayers, and even song lyrics from people like John Lennon. At that point it was best just to dispense with the activity altogether.
Where there is a Christian cultural consensus, civil authorities are wise to reinforce that moral foundation for the sake of the citizen character it fosters. But when we can no longer agree on our moral foundation, a hodgepodge of religious expressions serves only to undermine religion by relativizing it. Of course, a society without a moral foundation on which it can agree is no society at all, which is a more fundamental problem.
With the passage of this same-sex marriage law in New York and with California teetering (will Texas hold?), are we at the same point of moral collapse where marriage is concerned? Where the cultural consensus is so shattered and the government, accordingly, is so morally adrift that it cannot discern between the union of a man and a woman, homosexual cohabitation, a motorcycle gang, and who knows what else when recognizing marriage, has the time come to remove the question entirely form the purview of government responsibility? Should the government limit itself to recognizing private contracts regarding inheritance, legal custody of children and property, hospital visitation rights, etc.?
A study by the Council on Family Law, "The Future of Family Law: Law and the Marriage Crisis in North America," points out the difficulties with this initially attractive "separationist" approach.
The state has an interest in promoting marriage whether by officially recognizing and honoring it or by facilitating it with tax advantages. The state's interest is in strengthening that social arrangement that brings people into the world and then forms them morally into emotionally stable, law abiding, neighbor blessing, productive members of society who in turn become capable of forming future families.
Yes, the nagging fact about natural sexual relations is that they produce children. It is chiefly this that draws the state into the recognition and regulation of marriage. It is responsible for protecting people, especially the most vulnerable, like children, and thus it oversees the marriages that produce and nurture them. The state has no interest in granting special advantages to certain people simply on the basis of how and with whom the practice sexual intimacy.
Furthermore, the study points out that "the disestablishment of marriage would support a troubling and already all too common perception that marriage may be a nice ceremony but is no longer a key social institution."
Lastly, the report argues that "outside of marriage, the state is necessarily drawn into greater and more intrusive regulation of family life." It is because of the natural bonds and family ties of marriage that the state leaves so much discretion in child rearing to parents. Expect that to change under disestablishment.
Tactically, it's also a dead end. Now that homosexuals in New York have access to the social legitimacy of marriage they will cling to it tenaciously. It will also serve as a useful legal base from which to promote their way of life in public schools, force institutions across society to affirm the moral legitimacy of their sexual activity, and punish those who hold traditional views. If Christians and moral traditionalists cannot win the battle for true marriage, they have no reason to think a battle for marriage disestablishment will be any more successful. If you can't win one debate, what makes you think you can win the other?
The way forward has to lie elsewhere.