The state of New York recently made headlines when it passed the “Marriage Equality Act” by a 33-29 margin. Many of the arguments presented in favor of the bill were framed in terms of equal marriage rights for all citizens, paralleling the same arguments used by those in the Civil Rights Movement. Those in the same-sex community argued that by being unable to marry, they were being denied a right.
As it stands, the term “marriage equality” is both vague and loaded. In order to determine what is considered equal treatment, we first have to know what marriage is. To speak about marriage equality without first establishing a definition of marriage is to put the cart before the horse. We cannot sensibly talk about issues of rights if we don’t even know what a right itself is.
Many pro-abortion arguments take a similar route — that is, they presuppose what’s entailed in the conclusion. But in fact, the real debate with abortion ought not be about a women’s right to choose, but about the personhood of the unborn. If the unborn are rights-bearing persons, then there exists no right to terminate their lives (extraordinary cases aside).
In a similar way, it is circular to argue that same-sex couples should be married because it is their right, for the conclusion is presupposed in the premises. Proponents of conjugal marriage will simply deny that such a right exists to begin with, so it is of no use to assert it. For advocates of conjugal marriage, marriage is already equal.
It is precisely for this reason that the argument against traditional marriage norms on the grounds of Equal Protection and Due Process clauses fail. Before we can delve into issues of what marriage law should be, we first have first to establish the relevant facts concerning marriage. If the very nature of marriage is conjugal, then there is no unjust discrimination taking place when it is denied to same-sex couples, since no conjugal aspect is possible.
Ultimately, the issue is not one of equal rights, but of what marriage is fundamentally. I would be the first to admit that same-sex couples should have the full right to marry, but only if marriage is defined in a certain way (such as being an emotional union of persons). That’s a big if, and one that many proponents of same-sex marriage seem to gloss over.
Considerations of equal rights must always come after a definition of the benefit in question is established, otherwise cases in favor will invariably end up begging the question. Campaigns and slogans that parade the term “marriage equality” have thus already presupposed the conjugal conception of marriage to be false. We must be careful not to grant this assumption, and to focus the debate on the real issue.