As the tide has shifted toward greater acceptance of marriage equality, one of the last redoubts of opponents has been the English language. Theirs is not a new argument. Opponents have long claimed that the plain meaning of the language has been that marriage is a relationship between a man and a woman.
That meaning is changing. The jurisprudence of the last 10 years has offered a different definition. In one case, the court defined marriage as an exclusive, permanent, committed relationship between two people. According to the court, the gender of the two people was not an intrinsic part of the meaning of marriage.
The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court wrestled with the problem of definition when it heard arguments last week in two marriage equality cases. The conservative justices seemed uncomfortable tinkering with the definition of marriage, even though their job requires them every day to refine the meaning of a host of concepts — freedom, equality, justice, for example.
Of course, the idea that a court could have the power to redefine an institution as important as marriage makes some people queasy. If justices on the bench can redefine marriage so as to exclude gender as a qualification, what is to stop them from eliminating another of those qualifying adjectives? Who is to say they couldn’t drop the adjective “exclusive,” authorizing polygamy?
It is a good question. Do judges have free rein to make up definitions? Where do they get their definitions anyway?
One thing is clear: They don’t get their definitions from a church or religion. One of our bedrock constitutional principles is that no church has the authority to foist its definitions on the nation, which includes the members of many other churches. Our judges and political leaders must be able to develop their ideas independent of religious authority from the great marketplace of ideas that is our society and culture. We may form our personal beliefs inside the churches or temples that we attend, but we must debate those ideas out on the public square where all faiths are equal.
Inevitably then, the ideas we use to define institutions such as marriage come from the culture itself. Conceivably, judges could define marriage so as to allow polygamy. But judges are not oracles far removed from the culture they inhabit. They are aware of the ways that people understand the language and the degree of acceptance that any change in definition may encounter. They know that if they lose credibility they will be ignored.
Polygamy is acceptable in many societies, but not in this one. One reason is that it is widely believed to be abusive of women. Maybe polygamy will catch on in a big way some day so that society reaches a different conclusion, but we are far from that day. Until then, the term “exclusive” remains part of the definition of marriage.
The experience of society over many years allowed us finally to change the meaning of marriage so that gender is irrelevant to the definition. Gradually, straight society learned about the millions of committed, loving, exclusive, long-term relationships between people of the same sex. It was a human reality that could not be denied. It was marriage in fact, if not in legal terminology. So gradually, the jurisprudence and the laws caught up with reality.
The polygamy argument is part of the slippery slope argument: If we allow gay marriage, we will be on a slippery slope toward all sorts of unforeseen outcomes. But there is no slope, and no one is sliding anywhere. We are all walking around on level ground, and if we have our eyes open, we will see that the nature of marriage has not changed, nor its meaning. If anything the testimony of loving gay couples over the years has provided an inspiring example to straight couples jaded about the travails of heterosexual marriage.
The courts’ new definition of marriage is no threat to us because it is a definition the courts have gleaned from us.
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