Gay Marriage and Imposing Moral Standards

Does our government have the right to legislate morality?

At first, the question may seem ridiculous: because citizens disagree on the definition of right and wrong, the State ought not take a stand on controversial moral questions. My friend and fellow Republican Amber Athey made this very argument several months ago: “The government cannot, and should not, legislate human ethics, for not only is this hypocritical on behalf of conservatives, but it is a direct infringement on freedom.” Of course, not everyone agreed. Another dear friend, Dominic LaMantia, responded to Amber’s assertion, noting that “any action by the government inherently has moral content, so legislating morality cannot and should not be avoided.” Both made strong cases for their position and accurately summed up the issue.

Since the “freedom vs. morality” conversation has already been had, you may wonder why I’m bringing it up; beating a dead horse is not really my style. Nevertheless, as debate rages over gay marriage, I feel obligated to address the nature of law and its inherent moral character.

I’ve only written about gay marriage once. Since publishing that story, my views have changed dramatically; to which extreme they’ve shifted, I shan’t say. I suggest you speak to me personally if you’re desperate to know. In truth, my opinion isn’t important; what matters is how much more I know. All of those new insights have led me to a clear conclusion: both sides wish to make their morals law.

The anti-gay marriage lobby often acknowledges its moral basis. Many who oppose gay marriage do so because of religion — their faith condemns homosexual behavior and ordains the holiness of monogamous relationships. Granted, there are a number of other arguments for traditional marriage, the destruction of family and ‘slippery slope’ chief among them. That said, religion undoubtedly drives much of the opposition movement: faith communities generally fight hardest to maintain the status quo and a clear majority of Christians say same-sex marriage would violate their religious beliefs. As such, I contend the ‘con’ side has already come to grips, so to speak, with its desire to legislate morality (by defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman). The ‘pro’ side presents quite a different scenario.

Just as religion fuels opposition to gay marriage, supporters often invoke equality as their value of choice. Because the 14th amendment does not clearly define equality, gay rights activists supplied a definition of their own. They concluded that homosexual couples ought to be treated like heterosexual couples; to them, equality meant giving the same to everyone, regardless of sexual orientation. Gay marriage naturally followed.

I will neither laud nor critique this definition. However, gay marriage proponents cannot continue to pretend their argument lacks a moral component. Equality is a subjectively defined value; values — statements of right and good (according to the New Oxford American Dictionary, “a person’s principles or standards of behavior”) — necessarily make moral claims — what ought and ought not be done. Consequently, in basing their argument on a moral value like equality (or freedom, for that matter), those who support gay marriage express an inherent desire to impose their moral standards on the American people.

At this point in time, I should remind you I said exactly the same thing about those who oppose gay marriage. Both sides wish to legislate their morality: on the one hand, gay marriage isn’t right (God didn’t want it this way); on the other, banning it is wrong (it makes some people second-class citizens).

All of this seems very dangerous. Shouldn’t we fear the imposition of moral standards and thus abandon both gay marriage camps? No. All laws make moral claims: this is right (legal) and that is wrong (illegal). Legislating morality is not bad; in fact, it happens every day.

My conclusion, then, is two-fold: First, both proponents and opponents of gay marriage seek to impose their morality on us. If defining marriage as a union of one man and one woman forces a moral code on America, then so does defining it as a gender-neutral union of two people. Second, that’s okay. Both sides have moral arguments and both have a right to make them law, provided enough people agree.

To inject rationality into the gay marriage debate, we must first know where to begin. That starting point necessarily includes two different sets of moral standards. Does that mean we can’t convince one another or reach a consensus? Of course not; talking exists for a reason. What it does mean is that neither side can rightly attack the other for wanting to legislate morality. And that’s alright.