Marriage is both ubiquitous and central. All across our country, in every region, every social class, every race and ethnicity, every religion or non-religion, people get married. For many if not most people, moreover, marriage is not a trivial matter. It is a key to the pursuit of happiness, something people aspire to—and keep aspiring to, again and again, even when their experience has been far from happy. To be told “You cannot get married” is thus to be excluded from one of the defining rituals of the American life cycle.
The keys to the kingdom of the married might have been held only by private citizens— religious bodies and their leaders, families, other parts of civil society. So it has been in many societies throughout history. In the United States, however, as in most modern nations, government holds those keys. Even if people have been married by their church or religious group, they are not married in the sense that really counts for social and political purposes unless they have been granted a marriage license by the state. Unlike private actors, however, the state doesn’t have complete freedom to decide who may and may not marry. The state’s involvement raises fundamental issues about equality of political and civic standing.
Same-sex marriage is currently one of the most divisive political issues in our nation. In November 2008, Californians passed Proposition 8, a referendum that removed the right to marry from same-sex couples who had been granted that right by the courts. This result has been seen by the same-sex community as deeply degrading. More recently, Iowa and Vermont have legalized same-sex marriage, the former through judicial interpretation of the state constitution, the latter through legislation. Analyzing this issue will help us understand what is happening in our country, and where we might go from here.
Before we approach the issue of same-sex marriage, we must define marriage. But marriage, it soon becomes evident, is no...