Today the highest court in New York (called not the Supreme Court of New York, but the Court of Appeals) ruled that the NY Constitution does not grant same-sex couples the right to be married.
Here’s part of the NYTimes reporting on the ruling:
In a 4-2 decision, the Court of Appeals found that the state’s definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, enacted more than a century ago, could have a rational basis, and that it was up to the State Legislature, not the courts, to decide whether it should be changed.
The majority decision, written by Judge Robert S. Smith, who was appointed by Gov. George Pataki, found that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples could be based on rational social goals, primarily the protection and welfare of children.
“Plaintiffs have not persuaded us that this long-accepted restriction is a wholly irrational one, based solely on ignorance and prejudice against homosexuals,” Judge Smith wrote in his 22-page opinion. For example, he wrote, it could be argued that children benefit from being raised by two natural parents, a mother and a father, rather than by gay or lesbian couples. (emphasis added)
Just to be clear, the court says this to stress that it is the legislature’s role to decide the matter in NY. They said that if the legislature wanted to decide, through its function of debate and legislating, that this rational argument was trumped by others, then it could, but that the equality rights in NY’s constituion were not such as to override the legislature’s role here.
Here’s what I want to raise: There is much discussion about this so-called offspring benefit to marriage, and there is some good social scientific evidence that, in fact, children seem to do better with a mother and a father figure (I’m not sure about the evidence on whether they have to be natural or not). I’d site Browning’s work that points to others as a helpful summary of that social scientifc work, but I don’t have it before me (and I disagree with the emphasis he puts on some of it). Much of that evidence says, if I read it right, that they do better, not that single parents or gay/lesbian couples do poorly, which is an important distinction. (Scoring 95% on a test is better than 90%, but both are worthy of an A).
But we should also note that marriage in our culture is not understood as just or even principally a means to rear children. If it were, we’d bar marriage to heterosexual couples who could not procreate, such as impotent or elderly couples. Or we’d prohibit divorce in some circumstances where there are children involved. But we don’t do any of that, do we?
In truth, we see marriage as something broader than that, though certainly there are benefits in married life to raising stable and healthy children (and one wonders if the evidence about gay and lesbian parents is hindered by a lack of study about how those in committed long-term relationships fare over time…). Marriage is a form of living that, through ritualized and vowed committment to another, provides for stability, mutual support, economic benefit, etc. It signifies lasting commitment to the beloved and in an ideal world provides a framework of trust and communion that makes both partners bigger together than they are separately.
It seems to me that the court could have said that
there a rational argument could be made that married couples are healthier (and they are, for various reasons) and thus we should expand marriage to a broader subset. But they didn’t say that, choosing instead to focus on just one benefit of marriage that is naturally (but not intrinsically) barred to same-sex couples.
Augustine, who wrote on the Goods of marriage, saw at least three: the gift of children, a means of fidelity to spouse, and a sacrament, a community blessed by the Grace of God. Many heterosexual marriages only are blessed with two of those; I don’t see any reasonable reason, on this specific line of reasoning, why same-sex couples can’t be blessed with those two as well.
How is allowing same-sex marriage going to affect how a heterosexual-married-couple-with-kids raises their children in any way that is noticably different from how my up-to-now childless marriage affects them? It wont.