Two years ago, New Jersey lawmakers voted to allow domestic partnerships. Under domestic partnerships, same-sex couples can have some benefits that are granted to married couples. For example, domestic partners have the right to hospital visitation and medical decision-making rights; control of remains; state-income tax deductions for dependents; and health and pensions coverage for partners of State employees. When the New Jersey State Senate voted 23-9 on January 8, 2004 to approve this new law, they avoided the very sensitive issue of marriage. But now they must face the issue.
On October 25, 2006, in its 90-page ruling, the New Jersey State Supreme Court said that same-sex couples are entitled to the same rights as heterosexual couples. Furthermore, the court said that it is for the legislature to decide whether the State will establish as legal same-sex marriages or adopt some other form of civil union. In this country, there are only five states without either a law or a State constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. New Jersey is one of those states. Activists are aiming to win the battle for same-sex marriage on the State level and then take the issue to the U.S. Supreme Court.
When the State recognizes a marriage, this fact confers benefits on the couples such an extra tax exemption for a spouse and the ability to collect a deceased spouse’s social security. In 1997, the U.S. Government issued a list of over 1,000 laws that grant special rights, privileges and responsibilities to married couples. These benefits come at a price to the State and others. But the State grants them because the State has a special interest in marriage and its value for society. Today same sex couples are demanding equality in terms of rights.
However, the issue does not ultimately resolve itself in terms of rights, even though the proponents of same-sex unions frame their arguments in that language. There can be ways to allocate many rights and benefits through some mutual agreement. For example, individuals who share a residence could be able to guarantee by law that their wishes in terms of property and certain responsibilities such as decision-making in a time of grave illness be given to whomever they designate. The issue is not about rights. Nor is it about the equality of individuals as persons. The issue is about marriage itself. Is marriage by its very nature between a man and a woman?
Some argue that love between two people is all that matters. Why shouldn’t same-sex individuals be able, therefore, to marry as long as they love each other? But there are different kinds of love e.g. the love of a parent and child; the love of two friends; the love of teacher and a student. There are different kinds of relationships. There is no reason under the sun why a government should be interested in licensing the love between any two individuals, except in the one very obvious instance of marriage.
The government should be interested in marriage because marriage is not a private matter. People have wedding ceremonies because marriage is a public institution. It is a benefit to society and to the State. A man and woman marry so that together they can have children and raise them to be mature individuals who contribute to the common good. (cf. Peter Sprigg,
Remarks delivered at a panel discussion at the University of Pennsylvania,
February 12, 2004).
Even a student with the most elementary knowledge of biology can understand that male and female are not identical and that they have been so fashioned by nature with the purpose of uniting in love and bringing children into the world. Marriage is ordered to the procreation of new life. This end is not divorced from love, but the fulfillment of the love between a husband and wife. Certainly there are some marriages that cannot bring children into this world due to some natural causes. But that does not change the reality that marriage is naturally ordered to new life. By placing same-sex unions on the same level as the marriage of a man and woman, the State would be denying the inherently conjugal relationship that belongs to marriage.
Any law made by man can claim legitimacy inasmuch as it is grounded in the natural law that opens us up to God’s plan for His creation. Any law that a legislature would pass to make same-sex unions marriage would, therefore, lack validity. And more than that, the State would actually fail in its obligation to promote marriage as an institution for the good of society.
Civil laws structure life in society. They "play a very important and sometimes decisive role in influencing patterns of thought and behavior" (Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 90). Civil laws shape society because they help form the attitudes and value judgments of young people. Permissive abortion laws create an environment where the young grow up thinking that, because abortion is legal, it is also moral. The granting of the same-sex unions the same status as marriage between a man and a woman would contradict the very institution of marriage as a specific relationship different by nature from other forms of friendship or love.
No human words can alter the given nature of marriage as a union between a man and a woman that is open to procreation. The question that now faces the New Jersey legislature is much more than an issue of just changing pronouns in a law. The question raises the issue of what our society truly understands marriage to be. To redefine marriage in law to include same-sex couples would be more than an exercise in misguided philology. It would be the defeat of logic by emotion and the ultimate devaluation of marriage itself.
For another discussion of this same subject, see “Marriage and Same-Sex Unions: Is There A Difference?” http://bishopserratelli.rcdop.org/news/marriage-and-same-sex-unions