Issues related with the definition of marriage, as stablished and recognized by cultures and governments, will never end. As a social convention, set up by humans whose knowledge and values evolve over time, it will always be prone to disagreement and controversy. (Nature doesn’t care, as long as some genetically-encoded information perpetuates.)
The definition not only changes within a society over time, but also across societies. Polygamy, for instance, though illegal in the U.S., is permitted under Islamic law. And even if the maximum number of spouses is settled, there might be disagreement on their gender, minimum age, and race. Interracial marriage, it’s worth mentioning, is only fully legal in the U.S. since 1967.
Recently, a range of Western States are reviewing the definition by including gay marriage. The move usually suffers strong opposition by conservatives (mainly due to religious reasons), but its passing is a matter of time, for there really isn’t any reasonable argument against it.
But the case is not so simple. It is not just about a person, or a group of Justices, declaring not being interested in certain aspects of the private life of other individuals. Marriage is legally related with other instances of life in society. In the U.S., for instance, marital status affects rights, privileges, and benefits, in 1,138 statutory provisions. Marriage equality advocates are certainly correct in asking why should these rights be conferred to some couples and not to others, given the intricacies of the definition.
The legal consequences of marriage put governments in a delicate position. As conservatives have been arguing (though for different reasons), if you push the threshold this much, what will prevent it to move even further? Indeed, what can you logically say against three or four people who love each other and want to commit living a life together? Will them be allowed to join their credit scores when buying a house?
Thought that might seem unrealistic in current times, undoubtedly family life and the way of raising children are rapidly changing: an increasing number of kids are taken care of by grandparents since parents have to work long hours, or by single parents who divorced; married couples are forced to live apart for long periods due to work or study related travels; women are forced to have children later in life to focus on their careers.
As the notion of family evolves and gender equality empower people to watch for themselves, lawmakers should focus more on the rights of individuals, specially potential offspring and adopted children, than on the benefits for married people themselves. As a matter of fact, going on the other direction, why should a person get certain benefits just for being married? Isn’t it discriminatory that unmarried people have to pay more on taxes, and work harder to buy certain goods?
(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)