Should same-sex couples have the same marriage rights as heterosexual couples?

Following the extension of civil marriage to same-sex couples over the pond in Maine and in Maryland, TCS wonders whether or not same-sex couples in the UK should still be restricted to ‘civil partnerships' as opposed to civil marriages. Should we be wary of an institution that "could destabilise societal morals and children's welfare", or is it time for homosexuals to move closer to socio-cultural parity with heterosexuals?

YES: Same-sex marriage makes perfect symbolic sense and it's high time for our nation to move forward, argues Matthew Ridley.

The debate sparked by the coalition government's policy of allowing same-sex civil marriage in this country has become more heated than most expected. Emotions run high on both sides. I do not want to argue here that opponents of same-sex marriage are bigoted or evil; they are simply wrong. Same-sex marriage makes sense. Here's why.

Firstly, it has real benefits. Civil partnerships may provide the same legal rights as marriage, but they carry none of its historical and cultural significance. Symbolism matters, and calling same-sex relationships ‘marriages' would be an important symbolic step – for the first time, same-sex couples would feel fully included in the traditions of a society that for centuries persecuted them. Young LGBT people would learn that accepting their sexuality does not mean rejecting the cultural norms they were brought up into. Young straight people, far less homophobic than any generation before them, would be less inclined to reject the concept of marriage as old-fashioned and discriminatory.

Opponents will respond that such benefits are minor in comparison with the costs of same-sex marriage. They say that the government can't ‘redefine' a word like marriage and that perhaps the next step after allowing same-sex marriage will be polygamy, or incestuous marriage. These are not arguments, just attempts to avoid the issue at hand. Any change in the law ‘redefines a word', and polygamy and incest are separate issues for separate debates. Each time we exclude a particular group from a legal contract, that exclusion must be justified on its own merits. Societies where the state arbitrarily treats different groups differently are societies without the rule of law.

The only plausible difference between gay and straight couples that might justify excluding gay ones from marriage is that gay couples can't naturally procreate. The argument goes that marriage is an institution established for the sake of children, where couples commit to providing a secure environment for their offspring. Allowing same-sex couples to marry would send a message that marriage is not about children, but personal fulfilment, and we'd neglect its true purpose.

Such an argument might sound reasonable, but is in fact ludicrous. As far as straight couples are concerned, allowing same-sex marriage doesn't change the usefulness of getting married at all. This is why all the evidence shows that same-sex marriage laws have no effect on rates of opposite-sex marriage, or births out of wedlock. Studies also show that many same-sex couples can, and do, raise children just as well as opposite-sex ones. If marriage does protect children, I would say that all kids, not just those with opposite-sex parents, deserve such protection. Besides, marriage isn't just about children; we know this because straight couples who will never have children, or would make incredibly bad parents, can still get married.

Some worry that if same-sex marriage is allowed, anti-discrimination laws will force churches to hold weddings that contradict their beliefs. This will not happen in the UK; the Equalities Minister has expressly stated as much. But as for other countries, if this is the only thing that worries you, it's anti-discrimination law you have an issue with, not same-sex marriage.

What I really want to get across is that same-sex marriage is not an issue of ‘left' versus ‘right', nor one based on value judgements or emotions. It's just common sense. It makes a few people much happier and it protects children from the Wrong Impression. Now, as a nation, let's move on.

Matthew Ridley is a second-year Economist at Trinity

NO: Gay marriage could constitute a slippery slope towards societal decline, suggests Sarah Weidenmuller.

Hail wedded love, mysterious law, true source, Of human offspring, sole propriety, In Paradise of all things common else. John Milton, Paradise Lost

As society confronts the constitution and nature of marriage, the ‘wedded love' which captivated Milton in his seminal epic, it is this article's contention that same-sex marriages would be harmful to the institution of marriage, to societal morals, and to the welfare of children. The answer to the question above, therefore, is a gentle but firm "no".

In the first instance, marriage would be drastically redefined for everybody. Take a look at the British government's ‘Equal civil marriage' consultation this year. To conciliate religious groups and ostensibly protect them from successful legal action if refusing to conduct same-sex marriages, it proposed that such couples would only be eligible for a civil (not a religious) marriage ceremony. Yet this will not prevent the ‘what' of marriage being redefined for the whole of society, regardless of its restriction on the ‘where' or ‘how'.

So what exactly is the purpose of marriage? Since Christians are often on the opposing side of this debate, and since no Cambridge student can deny that the Bible's influence on British national identity and history has been considerable, reflect upon one quotation from its very first chapter:

‘Then God blessed , and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it …"

The instruction to "fill the earth" was preceded by a blessing; it was a loving command, the blueprint for the building of families and nations. Whether or not you adhere to the Christian faith, it is impossible to deny that one purpose of marriage is procreation in a loving, committed relationship: families, and by extension nations, cannot be built in any other meaningful way.

At this point, some unpleasant - but empirical - evidence must be posited. On the website of ‘The Couples Study', an independent study by a same-sex couple into non-monogamous male-couple relationships, there is an illuminating section entitled ‘Research on Non-Monogamy'. The very first statistic cited is that ‘ost research shows that approximately two-thirds of long-term male couples who have been together for five years or more are honestly non-monogamous'. Additionally, four studies are cited ‘which document that only one third of male couples are sexually exclusive'. (They do, however, also cite one study which has not reached this conclusion). How can one promote same-sex relationships with the gift of ‘marriage' in the face of such statistical trends?

The above evidence seems to suggest that same-sex relationships have a fundamental inability to satisfy. So when the foreword to the Government's ‘Equal civil marriage' consultation claims that ‘if commitment and marriage is a good thing we should not restrict marriage only to opposite-sex couples', it is using a good observation to reach a wrong conclusion. The wedding vows long cherished in this country promise union ‘till death us do part'; but the reality of monogamous union in same-sex marriages would be deeply questionable.

Thus, they could not meet the familial needs of coming generations. The healthiest and most balanced environment for any child to grow up in is in the presence of a loving father and mother; the two sexes are complementary, not substitutionary. For Christians, this conclusion is derived from Biblical principles such as ‘In the Lord … woman is not independent of man, nor is man independent of woman'; and many non-religious thinkers would surely agree with this principle. Although the new intolerant ‘tolerance' of British society increasingly sidelines the "no" side to this debate, I gently remind the reader that this nation's destabilisation and decline awaits if same-sex couples are given equal marriage rights.

Sarah Weidenmuller is a third-year Historian at Murray Edwards

Comment on this story (4)

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  1. Thomas Clausen, Trinity College

    The evocation of John Milton as a defender of the “long cherished” institution of monogamous union appears rather curious to me. Despite the fact that Milton was in a heterosexual relationship, his marriage to Mary Powell did not turn out to be as “healthy and balanced” as he had hoped for. Unfortunately, the notion that “the purpose of marriage is procreation in a loving, committed relationship” was not how Christian canon law at the time saw it prompting Milton to write four pamphlets in favour of divorce. “[H]ow much more is it needfull now against all the sorrows and casualties of this life to have an intimate and speaking help, a ready and reviving associate in marriage” remarked Milton with view to St Paul’s statement that it is “better to marry than to burn with passion.” In 17th-century England, Milton’s passionate call for compassionate marriage was certainly seen as a harmful and radical redefinition of the traditional institution of marriage. Ultimately, Milton’s argument that the issue of marriage should not be left to out-dated laws or an inhumane misreading of the Bible, but rather to the loving couples themselves, carried the day. Maybe, there is indeed a lesson to be learnt here.

  2. M. Burnett-Stuart, Magdalene College

    Firstly, wow. "So what exactly is the purpose of marriage? Since Christians are often on the opposing side of this debate, and since no Cambridge student can deny that the Bible's influence on British national identity and history has been considerable, reflect upon one quotation from its very first chapter: 'Then God blessed [male and female], and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it ..." The instruction to "fill the earth" was preceded by a blessing; it was a loving command, the blueprint for the building of families and nations. Whether or not you adhere to the Christian faith, it is impossible to deny that one purpose of marriage is procreation in a loving, committed relationship: families, and by extension nations, cannot be built in any other meaningful way." So here's what I think your argument is: 1. Christianity has historically been influential upon our beliefs about the purpose of marriage 2. Bible quote 3. From premises 1 and 2, it is clear that Christianity is right about our beliefs about the purpose of marriage

  3. L. Makinson, Queens' College

    Given that in the US 60% of men and 50% of women admit to having extra-marital affairs (http://www.guardian.co.uk/lifeandstyle/2012/nov/10/sex-is-monogamy-dead) the argument that we cannot permit same-sex marriage on the grounds that it is morally different is ridiculous. You may like the idea that male-female marriage is always treated in the way you view it, but it isn't. Marriage is what you make of it - the fact that other male-female couples are having affairs does not devalue your marriage, else you wouldn't be so keen on it. You recognise that others will treat the institution in different ways, and you still see it as possible to define your marriage on your terms. Having same-sex marriage does not, in any way, undermine your ability to do this.

  4. M. Goodwin, Clare College

    I'm fairly sure my lesbian mothers did a great job at raising me thank you very much, and a religious text should not be the basis for laws. If this writer seriously believes that allowing loving couples to marry will lead to the "nation's destabilisation" she seriously needs her head examined. It's their marriage, not yours. If you don't like gay marriage, simply don't have one dear.