Final Thoughts On Same-Sex Marriage, And America

The Supreme Court’s same-sex marriage ruling has America talking.  It’s one of those events that can’t help but cause people of all persuasions and perspectives to stop and reflect — not so much on the relative merit of the Supreme Court’s opinion as a matter of constitutional jurisprudence, but rather on the fascinating, shifting, never-set-in-stone course of public opinion in our country.

In many recent conversations with friends, people have shaken their heads in wonderment at the speed with which people in the country have accepted the concept of same-sex relationships and, ultimately, same-sex marriage.  It’s hard to think of any other issue, during my lifetime, where prevailing public opinion seems to have shifted more rapidly.  Millennials have had a lot to do with this change.  At a recent dinner party, one of our friends was relating a conversation she had with her Millennial son about sexual orientation, and he said:  “Mom, to us it’s like being left-handed.”  I thought that was a really interesting — and encouraging — perspective.

On another level, the issue of same-sex marriage shows that, in America, if you wait long enough and pay attention, you’ll notice that things often come full circle.

Those of us who lived through the ’60s and ’70s remember that the avant garde, liberal position in those days was that marriage was passe.  Some people advocated free love and “open relationships” and argued that true commitment couldn’t really be based on a mere piece of paper, others derided marriage as a quaint throwback to the outdated notions of prior generations that could only stifle personal expression, still others pointed to the increasing divorce statistics and argued that the realities of the modern world meant that old-fashioned marriage simply could not work in the fast-paced modern world.  Of course, those arguments didn’t stop most of us from getting married, anyway.

During the ’60s and ’70s who would have predicted that, decades later, the issue of the right to engage in a legal marriage, in all of its get a license from a public agency, say your vows in front of the world, traditional glory, would be at the very forefront of the social change agenda?

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The Value Of Marriage

I’ve long supported same-sex marriage because I think marriage is a great institution.  It has made my life immeasurably better — so why shouldn’t every couple have the opportunity to enjoy its timeless benefits?  I simply don’t understand the objection to couples who want to legally declare and formalize their fidelity to each other.

I was therefore struck by the fact that Justice Kennedy’s majority decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, where the Court held that same-sex couples have a constitutional right to legally marry their partner, extols the value of marriage.  In fact, the opinion concludes with a ringing endorsement of the core, intrinsic value of marriage:

“No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. As some of the petitioners in these cases demonstrate, marriage embodies a love that may endure even past death. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

I am thrilled for my same-sex friends, and happy for every couple that will now have the ability to explore and revel in the wonders of a happy marriage.

Why Are Marriage Rates Hitting New Lows?

The latest census data show that the rate of marriage in America is still declining.  In fact, the marriage rate has hit an all-time low, and the number of Americans over 25 who have never been married has hit an all-time high.  In 1960, nine of ten Americans over 25 had been married; in 2012, half of that population segment had never been married.

Why is this so?  The article linked above discusses three possible reasons, two of which seem totally off-base and the third of which may be looking in the wrong direction.

The first is the economy and issues of “financial security,” which some young people cite as reasons to defer marriage.  There no doubt are people who want to be settled, in terms of their jobs and careers, before they get married, and the current economy is making that settling process more challenging.  However, the decline in marriage is a long-term trend, not a temporary blip that tracks economic performance.  Moreover, data shows that married couples, with their pooled resources and shared expenses, are far more likely to be wealthy than their unmarried or divorced counterparts.  No one should get married for purely economic reasons, of course, but if you are in love, getting married and staying married is far more likely to produce financial security than any other course.

The second is whether the increasing availability of same-sex marriage has caused rates of marriage to fall.  I think it is far more likely that the opposite is true.  As a mathematical matter, the fact that couples who previously could not marry are now part of the potential marriage pool is bound to increase marriage rates, and the zeal with which loving gay couples have pursued their right to marry assigns a value to the institution that should encourage more people to make that commitment, not the other way around.  It also seems implausible that those people who vigorously resist any change to “traditional concepts of marriage” are going to eschew getting married simply because gay people now have that right.

The final potential reason is the eradication of taboos on unmarried cohabitation and having out-of-wedlock children.  Those taboos, too, have been gone for a long time and therefore wouldn’t explain recent changes in marriage rates.  I think other, less noticeable long-term social forces provide an explanation.  It’s not the eradication of sex-related taboos that is at work, but rather increasing acceptance of the concept of being alone, both by the individuals in question and society as a whole.  Whether it is because they enjoy their private, internet-focused lives, or because they find their work far more rewarding than awkward social interaction, or because they don’t want the pressure of a permanent relationship, more people are perfectly comfortable with being single.  Decades ago, their families and friends would have put enormous pressure on them to get married; now those forces don’t exist.

Self-Marriage? Give Me A Break!

I was surfing the net recently when I ran across an odd piece in the Huffington Post about a North Dakota woman “marrying” herself.  Six years after dealing with a painful divorce, the woman went though a commitment ceremony with herself.  She describes herself as “very happy” and “very joyous,” and she takes herself on “dates” to “invest in this relationship.”

At first I thought it was one of those oddball stories about the curious antics of one person — but apparently it isn’t.  There’s actually an entire website devoted to self-marriage ceremonies, with links to sections like “self-marriage unveiled” and “about self-marriage.”

I’m not a hidebound traditionalist about who should participate in a marriage.  I support same-sex marriage, for example.  But I also think that the whole concept of marriage has to involve another person.  A crucial part of the institution is making sacrifices for the betterment of someone else, and legally committing yourself to that separate individual in sickness and in health, for richer and for poorer.

I don’t care how many “dates” you might take yourself on.  I don’t care how schizophrenic you might be.  I don’t care how disastrous your prior relationships have been.  You simply can’t “marry” yourself in any meaningful sense.

One reason I support same-sex marriage is that it recognizes the importance of the institution of marriage.  Gay couples who want to marry are eager for the commitment, welcome the legal enforcement of that commitment, and understand that making that legal commitment means something important.  They want to participate in an institution that has been crucial to the advancement of civilization.

Proponents of “self-marriage,” on the other hand, are really devaluing and mocking that institution.  It’s transparent, pathetic, and kind of sad.

In Defense Of Marriage — For Everyone

Last night Kish and I attended the wedding of a friend’s daughter.  It was a lovely ceremony.  We heard, once again, the familiar words of St. Paul’s epistle about love and the importance of selfless commitment in loving human relationships.

IMG_4033Those of us in the audience who are happily married reflected, once again, on how fortunate we are to have found someone with whom we can share our lives.  Marriage allows us to make the ultimate pledge to our loved one and to go forward as partners.  There is no doubt that successful marriages enrich the lives of both spouses.  They say that two heads are better than one, and it’s true . . . but then, for the most part, two people are better than one.  It’s wonderful to have that special lover, partner, and friend that you can confide in and consult with, who will gently coach you on how to smooth your rough edges, who will work and sacrifice to make your collective lives better, and who will always have your back.  You can’t help but feel a certain blessed, happy pride that you are part of such a relationship.

When you get married, you don’t necessarily think about the legal aspects of the decision, but they nevertheless are part of the bedrock on which marriages are built.  Marriage is a legal commitment that, once undertaken, can only be undone by another legal action.  The legal aspect gives marriage a formality that distinguishes it from more casual relationships.  And the other legal benefits and rights that go with marriage — be they tax breaks, insurance advantages, pension preferences, or one of the many other consequences built into federal and state law, 401(k) plans, and the other welter of documents and provisions that govern modern life — make working together as a team much, much easier.

I’m a big fan of marriage, and I think it should be encouraged whenever couples have decided, after mature reflection, that they have found that special person.  That’s why I support same-sex marriage.  Marriage has made my life immeasurably better.  Why shouldn’t every couple, regardless of their sexual orientation, have the same opportunity for lifelong happiness?

No DOMA Nation

Yesterday the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 federal law that denied rights and benefits to same-sex couples, and rainbow flags flew from sea to shining sea.

The Court’s decision was one of two rulings yesterday that addressed gay marriage.  In the DOMA decision, a 5-4 majority of the Court concluded that the statutory provision violated the right to liberty and to equal protection for legally married gay couples.  The ruling means that the thousands of gay couples who are legally married under the laws of certain states will be able to take advantage of federal tax and pension rights and other benefits that are available to other married couples.  In the other ruling, the Supreme Court held that proponents of California Proposition 8, which prohibits gay marriage, lack standing to defend the law.  That ruling leaves a lower court ruling that struck down Proposition 8 intact and therefore allows California to resume with state-sanctioned same sex marriages.

The Supreme Court decisions are not the last word on the subject, because gay marriage is not legal in a majority of the states and the DOMA decision did not address a provision of that statute that provides that states are not required to recognize gay marriages performed in other states where gay marriage is legal.  Opponents of same-sex marriage say they will continue to advocate on the issue.

I’m in favor of same-sex marriage, and I’m thrilled for my gay friends whose legal marriages are now given all the rights and benefits available under federal law.  I’m also hoping that the Supreme Court’s decision helps the United States to put this issue behind us — as opposed to becoming the lightning rod on a bitterly contentious social issue, as happened with the abortion rights decision in Roe v. Wade.  It’s time for this country to stop focusing on issues that divide us, and to start focusing on how we can work together to solve our problems.

In Line For History

Usually, we associate people camped out in lines for days with hot rock concerts, or huge basketball games, or Black Friday special sales.  In Washington, D.C., however, people have been waiting in line since Friday for seats to watch the U.S. Supreme Court.

This week, the Court will hear argument on two cases that may — and I emphasize may — resolve the constitutional status of same-sex marriage.  On Tuesday, in Hollingsworth v. Perry, the Court will address Proposition 8, a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage that California voters passed in 2008.  On Wednesday, in United States v. Windsor, the Court will examine the federal Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 statute that prevents same-sex couples from enjoying benefits, such as filing joint tax returns, that are available to “traditional” married couples.

Proponents of gay marriage hope the Court will use the cases to declare that different treatment of same-sex marriages violates the equal protection clauses of the Constitution.  As is often the case with Supreme Court cases, however, procedural issues may be decisive.  In the California case, a threshold issue is whether the conservative groups seeking to defend Proposition 8 have legal “standing” to do so, which will require the Court to consider whether the groups have a real stake in the outcome or are officious intermeddlers who won’t be personally affected by resolution of the dispute.  Another key question is which “standard of review” the Court should apply, with much tougher scrutiny being given, for example, to laws that discriminate on the basis of race than to laws that simply regulate economic activity.  The Obama Administration is urging the Court to apply a heightened level of scrutiny to laws that address gender orientation.

Lurking below are the “big picture” notions that only the Supreme Court can truly consider.  Should the Constitution be read strictly, according to “original intent” and the social mores that prevailed at the time its amendments were adopted, or is it a more flexible document that can evolve to encompass cultural changes?  If the latter approach is taken, how do you keep the Constitution from being read with such elasticity that it loses any intrinsic meaning and simply becomes whatever a majority of nine justices might declare?  And if you conclude that the Constitution does protect “gender orientation,” can you write your opinion in a way that would allow courts and legislators to draw principled distinctions between same-sex marriage and other forms of personal commitment between consenting adults — such as polygamy?  Often the Court decides cases narrowly precisely to avoid have to address these kinds of broad and difficult questions.

There’s a reason people are willing to endure days of the blustery late-March weather in Washington, D.C. to get a seat for these arguments.  This week, history will be made in the solemn Supreme Court oral argument chamber.