The essential public purpose of marriage

To understand this purpose we must ask: What is owed to the child?

On the 21st of May, the Minnesota House of Representatives voted 70-62 in a bipartisan majority to let the people of Minnesota vote on a constitutional amendment to protect marriage. Following passage in the Senate earlier this month, the amendment now heads to the 2012 statewide ballot to be voted on by Minnesota voters. Earlier in the month Dr Jennifer Roback Morse addressed the Minnesota House, urging members to allow the citizens of the state to vote on the proposed marriage amendment. The following are the remarks she prepared for her testimony.

I urge you to allow the citizens of Minnesota the opportunity to vote on the proposed marriage amendment.  Same sex marriage redefines marriage. Redefining marriage redefines parenthood.  Redefining marriage affects the balance of power between the state and civil society. The citizens of this state have the right to make up their own minds about these important issues.

The essential public purpose of marriage is to attach mothers and fathers to their children and to one another.  To see the importance of this purpose, we must take the perspective of the child: What is owed to the child? Unlike adults, the child does not need autonomy or independence. The child is entitled to a relationship with and care from both of the people who brought him into being. Therefore, the child has a legitimate interest in the stability of his parents’ union.  But no child can defend these entitlements himself. Nor is it adequate to make restitution after these rights have been violated. The child’s rights to care and relationship must be supported pro-actively, before harm is done, for those rights to be protected at all.

Marriage is adult society’s institutional structure for protecting the legitimate interests of children. Without this public purpose, we would not need marriage as a distinct social institution.

We often hear the objection that some marriages don’t have children. This is perfectly true. However, every child has parents. Depriving a child of relationships with his or her parents is an injustice to the child, and should not be done without some compelling or unavoidable reason. The objection that some marriages don’t have children stands the rationale for marriage on its head. It views marriage strictly from the adult’s perspective, instead of from the child’s perspective.

Same sex couples and opposite sex couples are obviously different with respect to this essential public purpose of marriage.  And treating different things differently is not discrimination. That is why, in the few cases where courts have found opposite sex marriage to be unlawful discrimination, they have had to come up with purposes for  marriage that have nothing to do with procreation or attaching children to parents.

For instance, Judge Vaughn Walker, who overturned Proposition 8 in California defined marriage this way: “Marriage is the state recognition and approval of a couple’s choice to live with each other, to remain committed to one another and to form a household based on their own feelings about one another and to join in an economic partnership and support one another and any dependents.”

Under this definition, marriage doesn’t have anything at all to do with children, permanence, sexual exclusivity or even sex itself.  Some college roommates could call themselves married under this definition. The essential public purpose of marriage has vanished, and has been replaced with inessential private purposes. Instead of being a bedrock social institution, marriage becomes nothing but a government registry of friendships, a pointless legal convention that frankly doesn’t deserve any government benefits or recognition at all.

But children still need to be attached to mothers and fathers.

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