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Modern Marriage: Standing on Ceremony

Regarding same-sex marriage, there's less daylight than might be expected between religious conservatives and some LGBT activists.

This story was originally published on July 21, 2008. President Barack Obama, who has said his views on gay marriage have been evolving, said today he is personally in favor of allowing same-sex couples to marry. Tuesday, North Carolina became the 29th U.S. state to ban gay marriage in its state constitution.

As California last month became the second state in the union (after Massachusetts) to legalize marriage for lesbian and gay couples, opponents of same-sex marriage have warned of dire consequences to the institution of marriage. Depending on one’s point of view, the Rev. Louis Sheldon’s assertion that “marriage is under attack” may seem alarmist, or it may seem like a late whistle.

With the U.S. divorce rate among the highest in the world, how will gays destroy an institution that’s already on its last legs? In a culture in which Big Love — a TV series about an affluent polygamist and his three wives — is a hit for HBO, do we really need to be concerned about a link between same-sex marriage and polygamy?

Liberal commentator David Blankenhorn, author of The Future of Marriage, dwells in a different part of the ideological spectrum from Sheldon: “I think it would be good if society could recognize the human dignity of homosexual love,” he told Nevertheless, Blankenhorn says there is indeed reason to believe that same-sex marriage, which he opposes, will lead to the further “deinstitutionalization” of conventional marriage, or what he calls “society’s most pro-child institution.”

Praising Marriage, or Burying It?

Gay advocacy groups, such as Lambda Legal, frame the legalization of same-sex marriage as “an intrinsic part of the struggle for civil rights.” Jonathan Rauch, author of Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, argues that allowing gay and lesbian couples to marry will strengthen the institution of marriage. And Blankenhorn acknowledged that most people at the grassroots level — lesbian and gay couples who would simply like legal and social recognition of their unions — probably are not motivated to weaken the pre-eminence of conventional marriage as an institution.

The same cannot be said, however, for other advocates of same-sex marriage. Beyond Marriage, a coalition of self-described LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) and queer activists that formed in 2006, aims “to shape alternative policy solutions and to inform organizing strategies around marriage politics to include the broadest definitions of relationship and family.”

A manifesto issued by the group — which includes organizers, scholars, educators, writers and cultural workers — declares, “Marriage is not the only worthy form of family or relationship, and it should not be legally and economically privileged above all others.”

The Alternatives to Marriage Project, founded by Dorian Solot and Marshall Miller — two signatories to the Beyond Marriage statement — is an advocacy group whose mission is “advocating for equality and fairness for unmarried people, including people who are single, who choose not to marry, cannot marry, or live together before marriage.”

The group does not oppose marriage, but executive director Nicky Grist told, “The campaign for same-sex marriage shines a much-needed spotlight on the injustices caused by America’s excessive use of marital status in law and policy. What’s often overlooked is that legalizing same-sex marriages will not solve those policy problems, which are faced by all 92 million unmarried people regardless of their reasons for being unmarried. More than other countries, the U.S. uses marital status as the on/off switch for the current of resources and responsibilities flowing between individuals and society. The downside is that too many people are being left out or let off the hook.”

Has the Ship Already Sailed?

Blankenhorn says the debate about gay marriage too often focuses exclusively on the rights of adults — the California Supreme Court decision, for example, calls the right to marry “one of the fundamental elements of personal autonomy and liberty protected by our (state) Constitution.” Lost in the discussion, says Blankenhorn, are the needs of children; he states that social science research clearly demonstrates kids do best when they are raised in a household that includes both biological parents, married to each other. This is the reason, he says, that marriage as an institution — while its norms and details vary widely among societies — is universal in human cultures: because it is a means of providing a mother and father for each child.

Sociologist Judith Stacey disputes the view that the conventional family structure is best for children. In response to what she called the distortion of her own research by Focus on the Family’s James Dobson and others, she declared, “There is absolutely nothing in any research that has yet been published that would warrant any form of discrimination against parents on the basis of sexual orientation.”

Whichever interpretation of the research one finds more persuasive, even researchers who oppose same-sex marriage acknowledge that conventional marriage as the primary family structure for raising children has been on the decline in the West for quite some time. They point to Scandinavia and the Netherlands — nations with same-sex marriage or something very close to it — as instructive.

According to Stanley Kurtz, the decline of conventional marriage paved the way for same-sex marriage to enter the realm of possibility. Kurtz, a conservative scholar who has written extensively on the effect of same-sex partnerships on Scandinavian and Dutch societies, notes that a “radical separation of marriage and parenthood … swept across Scandinavia in the nineties.” Writes Kurtz, who shares Blankenhorn’s opposition to same-sex marriage, “As rising out-of-wedlock birthrates disassociate heterosexual marriage from parenting, gay marriage becomes conceivable. If marriage is only about a relationship between two people, and is not intrinsically connected to parenthood, why shouldn't same-sex couples be allowed to marry?”

In a report issued largely as a response to Kurtz’s writings, economist M.V. Lee Badgett counters, “The decline of religious practice and belief, the rise of the welfare state, advances in contraception and abortion, and the improving economic status of women — all long-term trends in Scandinavia and the Netherlands — probably contributed both to the rise in cohabitation and to the equalizing of rights for gays and lesbian people.”

While Kurtz, referring to the Nordic countries, asserts that “gay marriage is both an effect and a cause of the increasing separation between marriage and parenthood,” Blankenhorn takes a more “methodologically modest” approach to the issue, he told

Noting in his book that “the weakest support for marriage as an institution is in those countries with same-sex marriage,” he goes on to say, “These correlations do not prove that gay marriage causes marriage to get weaker. I am not trying to prove causation. … But correlation is important. Correlations show that certain things tend naturally to cluster together.”

The weakening of conventional marriage has not been limited to northern Europe, of course. U.S. Census Bureau figures show that between 1990 and 2000, the proportion of family households headed by married couples decreased somewhat (to about 52 percent), at the same time that the percentage of family households headed by women with no husband present increased slightly.

Pastors have railed against the high divorce rate and prevalence of nonmarital births in the U.S. (more than a third of all births in 2005 were to unmarried women). Pundits can’t resist highlighting the foibles of celebrity matrimony — marriages that must be counted on the fingers of two hands, unions lasting 55 hours — to make the point that allowing gays to wed couldn’t possibly harm the institution further. Blankenhorn writes in his book, “The marital conduct of heterosexuals in the United States has done much to erode both the ideal and the reality of the mother-father childrearing union.”

Nevertheless, Blankenhorn has little patience for those who, as he puts it, argue that marriage as an institution is so damaged that there’s no reason to exclude gays and lesbians from participating in it. He points to a number of trends — modest declines in the divorce rate, stabilization of the percentage of African-American children living in households headed by married couples — that he says offer tentative hope that conventional marriage is becoming stronger. For these positive signs, Blankenhorn credits those in the marriage movement who “never got the memo saying that marriage is beyond saving.”

Brave New World vs. Back to the Future

For now, marriage between two people of the same sex is permitted in only two states in the union. Whether same-sex marriage becomes common and leads to acceptance of other nontraditional relationships or creates a backlash and generates further calls to strengthen conventional marriage, it’s intriguing to contemplate what American society might look like in either case.

Grist, of the Alternatives to Marriage Project, insists that the changes would be mostly minor and generally positive. “If marriage were no longer legally and economically privileged, household configurations would look almost identical to today,” she predicted to “There might be smaller gaps between married and unmarried households’ income and health indicators. There might also be smaller gaps in marriage rates among racial/ethnic groups and people with and without disabilities. People who care for and depend on one another will feel more secure that the law won’t step between them and call them strangers during a crisis. Weddings will most certainly continue!”

Opponents of same-sex marriage take a less sanguine view. They consistently argue that the inevitable result of legal recognition for same-sex unions will be the legalization of polygamy: Dobson, of Focus on the Family, writes in Marriage Under Fire that “the introduction of legalized gay marriages will lead inexorably to polygamy.”

Conservative groups like the Alliance Defense Fund, a religiously oriented legal advocacy coalition, sound ominous warnings that supporters of same-sex marriage are “attempting to replace marriage with ‘anything goes’ arrangements” and that “this disregard for marriage and its true purpose threatens to destroy this institution.” (Blankenhorn noted wryly that supporters of same-sex marriage “have the best enemies you could possibly have.”)

Blankenhorn told an audience at Dartmouth earlier this year that the final undoing of the principle that children should grow up with their own mother and father will be not same-sex marriage but three- and four-parent families.

“In Canada and other countries, there are children with three or more legal parents. As a matter of equity,” he asks, “how could three legal parents be denied the right to marry?” He believes that supporters of same-sex marriage would have to support such a bid for equality, which he thinks would succeed in the courts.

These may sound like classic “slippery-slope” arguments, but they may contain an element of truth. The Alternatives to Marriage Project Web site, while noting that it “isn’t right for everyone,” provides resources for those interested in polyamory, or what it calls “honest, responsible non-monogamous relationships.” Beyond Marriage recognizes polygamy as a legitimate family structure; the group’s statement refers to “committed, loving households in which there is more than one conjugal partner.”

With images of the Texas-based Yearning for Zion polygamist sect fresh in the public consciousness, the idea of legal polygamy may be repugnant to many. But those who value personal autonomy might find the prescriptions for strengthening conventional marriage no less troubling.

Blankenhorn forthrightly says he is willing to limit individual rights in exchange for what he sees as a greater social good.

He has testified to state legislatures in favor of amending marriage law to implement some legal hurdles to no-fault divorce, and he also favors restricting access to reproductive technology (sperm banks, donated eggs, surrogacy). As for teen pregnancy, Blankenhorn believes the alternatives commonly employed in past decades — giving babies up for adoption, marrying young — would be preferable to the now-common practice of young girls remaining unmarried and keeping their babies. But he acknowledged to, “My voice is certainly a minority voice. … It’s a very hard case to make in this freedom-loving country of ours.”