Last Tuesday the U.S. Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the case against California's Propostion 8 -- no homosexual marriage -- and Wednesday on the Defense of Marriage Act.
In our country the Right argues that traditional marriage (between one man & one woman) should be protected by the government. The Left holds that the state should recognize and legalize homosexual relationships as marriage. Both want the government to settle the matter. Between these two enters a third view -- some libertarians believe that it is not the government's job to define or regulate marriage. Their mantras have become "Get the state out of the marriage business" and "No permission slips for marriage."*
Tom Head, a homosexual-marriage proponent speaking at Mississippi College, wrote "The argument that I found most effective with this Baptist audience...hinged on the sacramental role of government. Namely: What business does the government have mandating sanctity? If the government can make marriage sacred, then can it give us all a place in the world to come, too? And if there is a legal 'sanctity of marriage' that the government would be interfering with by allowing marriage rights for same-sex couples, then doesn't that imply government support for some pretty controversial heterosexual marriages?"
The libertarian view, when challenged, isn't without restrictions, for most will add that the government shouldn't legislate relationships between consenting adults. Many of those who want "no permission slips for marriage" would doubtless deny permission for a 50 year-old adult to marry a 10 year-old child, and might have problems with brothers marrying sisters. If modified, though, the position is actually capitulated by agreeing that in some cases the government should be in the marriage business!
I am somewhat moved by both the divine institution and libertarian arguments. Marriage was instituted by God, is first and foremost between a couple and God, and marriage can, I believe, be covenanted by serious persons without the consent or acknowledgement of government. But does that mean that a government has no interest in their own societal structure? Obviously, most all of us believe they have some interest, since most agree that it should not be entered by non-consenting adults or minors.
Marriage traditionally is a certain thing that can be recognized and defined, yea, has been. It is interesting to notice the evolution of the definition of marriage through the changes in Webster's Dictionaries.
In 1828 Webster's dictionary defined marriage: "The act of uniting a man and woman for life; wedlock; the legal union of a man and woman for life. Marriage is a contract both civil and religious, by which the parties engage to live together in mutual affection and fidelity, till death shall separate them. Marriage was instituted by God himself for the purpose of preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, for promoting domestic felicity, and for securing the maintenance and education of children." This definition was still in the last edition of the American Dictionary of the English Language that Noah Webster made before his death.
The 1913 edition is similar -- "The act of marrying, or the state of being married; legal union of a man and a woman for life, as husband and wife; wedlock; matrimony" -- but adds "Any intimate or close union" (though it is unlikely that marriages between two persons of the same sex was in view). The current Merriam-Webster online recognizes marriage as "the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law," but also includes "the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage."
In effect marriage is redefined as an emotional and/or sexual union that resembles that which we have traditionally recognized as marriage.
Non-interference in marriage may suit libertarians and some Christians, but it is unlikely to reach the same-sex marriage movement which is bent on recognition. In response to a Facebook entry that "real equality would be government that is not in charge of marriage" one respondent opined, "If I cannot come together, with a partner or partners of my choosing and declare myself married in my own eyes, then I really lack the ability to be married." Taken to its logical conclusion, this statement shows that the ultimate design is for marriage to be whatever an individual wants it to be. This exalts the anarchy of the individual over the general welfare of society.
* Note, I am not discussing whether marriage in the U.S. should be regulated at the state or federal level. Here I am considering the philosophical question of whether government should regulate marriage at all. If marriage is a divine creation and religious institution, what part (if any) should government play in it?