Accuracy in Media

Last month the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled, by a vote of four to three, that laws defining marriage as the union of a man and a woman violated the state constitution. The decision has been criticized by numerous public figures, among the most articulate of whom is Maggie Gallagher, president of the Institute for Marriage and Public Policy.

Gallagher, an expert on the subject of marriage, spoke at a December 19 luncheon held by the Washington, D.C., chapter of the Federalist Society, a conservative legal association. Although Gallagher touched on some of the legal aspects of the Massachusetts decision, her talk focused mainly on the sociology of marriage.

Today, Gallagher said, there exists a conflict between two very different views of the institution of marriage. One is that marriage is simply a public expression of internal sentiment, a symbolic legal rite to which the government attaches various financial benefits. (Some have gone so far as to say that marriage is merely “the sum of its legal incidents.”) In this view, the civil institution of marriage is simply a creature of the government, which can modify it at will. This is the view held by the Supreme Judicial Court, which stated in its decision that “the government creates civil marriage.”

Gallagher espoused a much different view. Marriage is not the creation of any government, she argued, but rather a universal social institution that actually antedates government. Gallagher noted that marriage, in one form or another, has been an important feature of all cultures, from primitive tribal communities to advanced industrialized nations. The institution developed naturally and universally as a way to channel sexual energies toward a positive good – the continued existence of the human race. The permanent union of a man and a woman has proved to be the arrangement most conducive to the upbringing of children and the maintenance of a stable society.

As Gallagher wrote in the December 1 Weekly Standard: “Marriage is about getting the people who make the baby to stay around and love each other and the baby too. Marriage is about securing for children the mothers and fathers they need to flourish and society the babies it needs to survive.”

Those who wish to redefine marriage, however, downplay or even brush aside this connection to childrearing, Gallagher said, and instead portray the institution in almost purely economic terms. When homosexual advocacy groups talk about the “benefits of marriage,” they are usually referring to a set of legal entitlements and “goodies” provided by the government.

Gallagher argued that these “benefits” are more accurately called “incidents,” since few of them are purely beneficial: Many of the incidents of marriage are benefits to one spouse but obligations to the other, while in some cases, such as the tax code, couples can actually face a penalty for being married. The financial benefits of marriage are in fact relatively insignificant, stated Gallagher, and in any case are not the reason people get married.

In contrast, when Gallagher and her allies talk about the benefits of marriage, they mean the positive effects the institution has on parents, children, and society as a whole. Many years of social research, Gallagher stated, have led to a broad consensus among experts that children do best when raised by a married mother and father.

According to Child Trends, a child welfare organization: “Research clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage. Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes.” Some of these outcomes are drug abuse, mental illness, violence, and teen pregnancy – all of which exact a heavy toll from society and government.

The benefit of encouraging an institution that produces healthy, well-adjusted children should be obvious. Thus, Gallagher noted, while the government does not create marriage, it does play a role in recognizing and supporting it. “By sustaining a public way of determining who is married and who is not, marriage law helps other more important players – families, communities, schools, churches – to sustain a marriage culture,” Gallagher wrote in her Weekly Standard article. “Without this common public vocabulary, marriage would become a private act upheld by no shared norm.”

Changing the definition of marriage to include same-sex unions would result in the loss of that shared meaning, Gallagher stated. We would no longer have a word for the lifelong union of a man and a woman – the institution that experience has shown to be optimal for the raising of children. Such a radical change, moreover, would open the floodgates to further redefinitions, with children having to serve as guinea pigs in what Gallagher called a “vast social experiment.”

Gallagher expressed her support for a constitutional amendment reaffirming the definition of marriage and safeguarding it from judicial activism. She said that a fundamental discrepancy between the marriage laws of one state and those of another would ultimately be as untenable as an incongruity in their definitions of private property.

A statement from Gallagher’s article explains why she thinks reinforcing the definition of marriage is so important: “The opponents of marriage understand what many of its friends do not: Capturing the word is the key to deconstructing the institution.”

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