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Multnomah County, just a few miles away from me, is issuing marriage licenses for same-sex couples. Everyone has an opinion and the resulting friction is generating more heat than light.
What is marriage? Biologically it originates from the fact that humans, like many other sexually reproductive species, form pair bonds. It's a fundamental aspect of humanity. The desire to pair bond is innate and present even in people who are infertile or homosexual. (I regard homosexuality as natural, because research has clearly established its existence in many nonhuman animals.)
Of course, it isn't just about biology. Most religious traditions state that marriage is between a man and a woman, which is why homosexual marriage is controversial. Religious controversies over marriage go beyond homosexuality — consider polygamy in the Mormon faith. Consider also differing religious attitudes toward divorce. Or, at risk of sliding off-topic, interracial or interfaith marriage.
What should a government committed to protecting ideological (including religious) freedom do?
I think it should get out of the marriage business entirely. "Privatize" marriage. The current legal benefits of marriage, such as inheritance and medical decision making, should be made available to people on a general and flexible basis without regard to ideology. The government may administer such "civil unions" but marriage would be a totally private matter. Each religion would imbue marriage with its own significance and ritual, and would not have to recognize marriages of other religions. The title of marriage would have no legal importance — people who marry would need to also form a "civil union" to obtain the legal benefits.
You see, I don't think marriage is something that all people are going to agree on. They don't all hold the same beliefs — and they're not going to. Unanimity isn't an option, and unlike most people, I don't think that's a problem.
It is wrong for people, even for a majority of people, to forcibly impose their beliefs upon others. People may believe that homosexual marriage is wrong — and I would be first in line to defend their freedom to hold and advocate that belief — but the cold truth is that homosexual marriage neither picks their pocket nor breaks their leg. Their own family remains intact despite the "scandalous" behavior of their neighbors. Government should not be used as a tool to impose one ideology. On the contrary, it should be organized to maximize its simultaneous compatibility with different ideologies. Disagreement is both good and healthy.
President Bush made a statement that he would support a Constitutional amendment prohibiting same-sex marriage. I obviously oppose such an amendment but think it's important to note a procedural issue. Bush's method is correct. The amendment process is intentionally difficult and invites vigorous public debate, which I strongly prefer to having national issues decided by state judges who aren't even indirectly my representatives. Judicial activism frightens me.
Because my preferred solution to the gay marriage issue isn't even remotely politically possible, it's worth endorsing an alternative — federalism. I haven't thought through the full implications of this, but what about letting each state decide individually whether or not it will recognize same-sex marriages? This would need a Constitutional amendment to implement, but the amendment would simply exclude marriage from the Full Faith and Credit clause. This would allow the more "liberal" states to legalize gay marriage while allowing the more "conservative" states to continue prohibiting it.
This isn't a fully satisfying compromise (no compromise is fully satisfying) but it might win political support from both sides of the debate and therefore be politically achievable. It has the additional advantage of enabling a sort of "political competition" among the states which I believe in the long run will have the effect of increasing freedom.
What about immigration? Could foreigners gain citizenship by forming a "civil union" with a citizen?
I don't have a good solution for immigration policy. If I Were King™, the borders would be almost completely open. I would welcome all immigrants who understand and ideologically support the principles of government laid out in the Declaration of Independence and in the Constitution. Forming a civil union with a citizen simply would not be a relevant factor.
I do not support open borders today, however, because of the enormous size of the welfare state. It creates an incentive for people to come to America not because they share the American Dream, but simply to get "free" stuff at my expense. Even though most immigrants (particularly illegal immigrants) are hard workers and a net gain instead of a net drain, I don't want to change immigration policy in a way that will strengthen a perverse incentive already present in our system.