There’s an old saying that goes: before taking down a fence, a wise person first ponders why someone thought to build it in the first place. In the debate over changing the federal Marriage Act to accommodate same-sex marriage – which would radically alter the form of an institution essentially unchanged for millennia – we would do well to apply such a process.
It is entirely natural for men and women to want to marry, and to commit themselves to each other in a public and formal way. Parents aspire to such an outcome for their children as they enter adulthood.
The oft-heard comment, “I hope they marry and settle down”, tells us that marriage is also recognised as a path of personal growth and development. The way we celebrate marriages is an expression of great joy and goodwill for a couple’s new life together.
It is understandable that some same-sex couples feel inclined towards marriage. They argue that their love and aspirations are essentially no different from anyone else’s.
But the institution of marriage is not, and never has been, solely about creating an avenue for people to express their feelings or to fulfil personal needs.
If it were simply about emotions and needs, then why would we need laws governing who can and cannot marry? Why would we need any laws at all? After all, marriage existed long before the codification of any law, so why should the state have an interest in our private lives?
The answer goes to the very basis of our ability to function as a society, that is, the protection and nurturing of the first and most important component of society – the family.
Marriage has both a public and private dimension. The state assumes the responsibility for only the public dimension for reasons to do with the common good – namely, that marriage brings with it the potential for raising children, which regenerates society and ensures its long-term future.
Every society in history has recognised this in some way. The marriage ceremony is in fact an acknowledgement of this public responsibility; and the state, by virtue of the law and public policy, binds itself to supporting this union, and the family based upon it, for this common good.
And so the argument against same-sex marriage cannot and should not be seen as “homophobic” – not because the law is elitist or discriminatory in a negative sense, but simply because society and the state do not have the same vested interest in any other form of relationship.
Nor can opposition to same-sex marriage be dismissed as simply an argument based on religion. The fact that the majority of organised religions retain a view of the institution that is in harmony with the wisdom of the ages simply means that they understand the significance of marriage in both its private and public dimensions.
Data from the social sciences also support society’s long-term interest in marriage as we know it. By every measure, married couples are healthier, wealthier and more socially connected than their single counterparts.
More importantly, for the sake of this discussion, however, children raised by their natural parents – that is, their mother and father – fare better on every social score and are less likely to become involved in drug-taking, other high-risk behaviours and delinquency.
It makes perfect sense not only to single out marriage between a man and a woman for special recognition, but also to create public policies that support the family based on that marriage.
If, today, we were building a society from scratch and wanted to protect its future and nurture its development, we would begin, naturally, to build a fence around marriage and the family – not to keep others out, but to hold together what is precious and to grant it special protection.
There would be a gate that would allow entry and the gatekeeper would ensure that the “the union of a man and a woman, to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life” was the price of admission.
Paul Russell is a member of the Australian Family Association of South Australia.