26 January 2014

Is there a secular case against gay marriage?

In my experience, much of the active opposition to gay marriage seems to be tied to religion. While we can mutually agree that all voices have a place in the gay marriage debate, opinions derived solely from a particular religious conviction cannot be the sole motivation for enacting public policy that affects people who may have a wide range of religious beliefs. For a healthy democratic republic, we must strive to balance the common good and individual freedom. Our laws and policies must be based on more than belief. They cannot unduly infringe on the right to individual belief, but they cannot unjustly impose specific tenets on the conscience of others.

So putting religion aside, are there sound non-religious arguments against gay marriage?

Earlier this month, the Witherspoon Institute (a conservative thinktank) published a short anti-marriage equality essay authored by Ryan Anderson, a graduate student in political science. Anderson’s essay was adapted from testimony he gave to members of the Indiana State Legislature which is considering a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage.

In the article, Anderson makes the following points:

(1) Marriage exists for, and therefore must be defined in relation to, childbearing;
(2) Marriage matters to the state because it ensures that children are less likely to be victim to a host of social ills such as poverty and incarceration, ultimately benefiting society collectively; and
(3) If governments change the definition of marriage, it will become more of an institution for adults to the detriment of children.

In addition to proscribing what marriage is, and should be, Anderson argues that same-sex relationships undermine marriage because:

(1) Gays can’t have children;
(2) Children need both a mother and father to optimally raise them; and
(3) Redefining marriage to accommodate homosexuals means that society would have to redefine marriage for every conceivable type of romantic union including “temporary” marriage, etc.

Remembering that we are putting religion aside for the time being, are Anderson’s arguments sound rationally, sociologically or politically? If the facts had a chance to speak, are gays really inferior at a social institution at which heterosexuals only have about a 50% success rate? Do we have enough sociological data to soundly support all of these arguments against gay families? What do the lived experiences of gay couples tell us about these arguments?

Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, energy or academic background to really tackle some of these questions in depth, but here are a couple of thoughts:

1. The author argues that the state’s interest in the institution of marriage is for provision of a stable environment in which to raise children. While I won’t argue that this isn’t in the state’s interest, why should we accept that children are the only reason government has an interest in the definition of marriage? For example, if children are the sole reason for legal recognition of marriage, then it is inconsistent for government to issue marriage licenses to infertile couples or couples that remarry after they no longer wish to have additional children. They don’t need the state’s investment in their relationship because they wouldn’t be doing anything functional for the state. In fact, if marriage is solely designed to support parent’s efforts to raise children, then government could create laws that nullify all marriages once the youngest child in a family finally leaves the nest.

This argument can lead us to silly conclusions because it is pretty obvious that marriage exists for the couple as well as for any children they may or may not have. Loving relationships between two consenting adults are among the greatest joys of life. They are compelling initially because of the love that blooms between a couple, and they are sustained – especially during the trying times of parenthood – by that love.  Since I think it is fairly reasonable to assume a strong connection between individual happiness and broader social well-being, then it is to a society’s advantage to promote happy marriages, whether or not they involve children. For gays, lesbians and bisexuals who are capable to achieving their maximum relationship satisfaction with a member of the same sex, is it in the state’s interest to exclude them from this opportunity?

The desire to form stable relationships is independent of sex and sexual orientation. Gay and lesbian couples can form loving stable homes in which to raise kids. With a preoccupation on the sex of each individual in a couple, those who argue against same-sex marriage run the risk of elevating relationship structure above relationship quality. Clearly an unhappy male-female couple cannot provide a more stable home life than a happy same-sex couple.

2. Gay people can’t have children? This is obviously not so. Many gay and bisexual people have their own biological children, perhaps from a previous heterosexual relationship before coming out (ahem, quietly raises hand). Other gay couples very much want to raise children and choose to adopt. If governments decide to deny gay couples who are raising children equal protection under the law, how is the state helping those particular children? In fact, the state would be discriminating against them. When we have too many orphaned children already, is it not in the state’s interest to facilitate the adoption of these children into loving homes?

3. The secular case against same-sex marriage seems to rest heavily on the notion that only a two parent, opposite sex married couple is an optimal parenting team for children. The challenge here from an empirical point of view is that this argument rolls quite a few phenomena into one succinct conclusion. Sociologically, we are asking several questions: (i) is a one versus two parent home better?, (ii) do the sexes in a two parent home need to differ or can they be the same?, (iii) does the sexual orientation of the parent(s) matter?, and (iv) does legal recognition of a couple’s relationship have an effect on children?

For instance, if research finds that the parenting abilities of single gay parents aren’t as good as married heterosexual couples, is the disparity due to the sexual orientation of the parent, the one versus two parent home question, or the effect of legal recognition on parenting success? This apples-to-papaya example doesn’t say much about whether gay marriage has a net positive, negative or neutral effect on children. The only scientifically sound way to evaluate whether gender “complementarity” has a non-trivial effect on children is to compare straight and gay two parent homes that both have legal recognition and that have raised children continuously from very young ages. Because gay marriage has been prohibited for so long in the US, is that sort of study even fully possible yet?

One of my concerns with insistence that children need to have opposite sex parents is that it makes little distinction between gender (a social construct that defines what it means to be ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’) and biological sex. The two are not synonymous. If gender duality in the home is really what is important in raising children, then a “feminine” female paired with a very “masculine” female might do a better job raising children than a man and woman who both act very “feminine”. However, I will back up here and suggest that arguing about what is “feminine” and what is “masculine” and how much of each a child needs is rather pedantic. Don’t children really need parents who model love, strength, honesty, trust, compassion, integrity, and hard work -- qualities that are genderless??

4. The issue of harm. I think most of us would agree that governments put in place laws and restrictions in order to protect other people from harm. Speed limits, drug and alcohol laws, laws against theft and aggression, etc. are generally instituted to ensure that the behaviors of some people do not impinge on the liberties of other individuals and cause them harm. Whether gay marriage actually causes harm to anyone is central to the debate about marriage equality, because if material harm cannot be demonstrated, gay marriage opponents have a very poor case indeed.

So, let’s go through several major classes of people:

Does gay marriage harm gay adults? No: lots of them can’t wait to get married! 
Does gay marriage harm the children of gay parents? No: it lends needed support for their families. 
Does gay marriage harm straight couples? No: it's irrelevant to them. 
Does gay marriage harm the straight children of straight couples? No: if anything, it sets an example of tolerance and love.
Does gay marriage harm the gay children of straight couples? No, it may give them something wonderful to hope for in their futures! 
Does gay marriage infringe on any particular church’s theology or opinion about homosexuality? No: they can still believe whatever they want.


Human beings form such a variety of relationships that I am skeptical of any claim that only a narrow subset of family arrangements can provide an optimal environment for children. I am open to critical scrutiny of all of these ideas by sound sociological research. If it can be determined that loving gay couples substantially and repeatedly harm children or society generally, then sure, let’s ban same-sex marriage. But I think that presently, there is no more than a weak non-religious case against gay marriage. Societal sanction of gay marriage is pretty common sense and more and more people are coming around.


The Witherspoon organization was a major funder of the controversial Regnerus study that claimed to show that gay parenting was substandard.

1 comment:

  1. "Unfortunately, I don’t have the time, energy or academic background to really tackle some of these questions in depth, but here are a couple of thoughts:"

    I'd say you tackled all these points pretty academically. Really thorough and sound. Thank you, as I will be using these points in conversations when this topic comes up.