Rational grounds for 'one man, one woman'

The Massachusetts Catholic Conference (MCC), representing the Roman Catholic Bishops of Massachusetts, joined with seventeen other major Catholic, Jewish and Protestant groups in filing a friend-of-the-court brief in support of the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). The brief was submitted on Jan. 27 in a federal case now before the First Circuit Court of Appeals in Boston.

On Feb. 23, President Barack Obama instructed the Justice Department to stop defending the DOMA on the grounds that the law is discriminatory.

Following is an excerpt of the section of the brief that presents the rational grounds for upholding the reference to "one man and one woman" in the definition of marriage. The full text of the brief can be found at the MCC website, www.macathconf.org.

When enacting DOMA, Congress explained the profound interest society has in preserving traditional marriage:

"At bottom, civil society has an interest in maintaining and protecting the institution of heterosexual marriage because it has a deep and abiding interest in encouraging responsible procreation and child rearing. Simply put, government has an interest in marriage because it has an interest in children."

Congress's judgment that traditional marriage protects children is supported by a long line of eminent thinkers and scholars from relevant academic fields over the past three centuries.

Secular arguments by scholars and thinkers

John Locke: the purpose of marriage is "the continuation of the species" and "this conjunction betwixt male and female ought to last, even after procreation, so long as is necessary to the nourishment and support of the young ones ... who are to be sustained by those that got them, till they are able to shift and provide for themselves."

William Blackstone: marriage is "founded in nature, but modified by civil society: the one directing man to continue and multiply his species, the other prescribing the manner in which that natural impulse must be confined and regulated" and the parent-child relationship is "consequential to that of marriage, being its principal end and design: and it is by virtue of this relation that infants are protected, maintained, and educated."

Noah Webster: marriage "was instituted ... for the purpose of preventing the promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, for promoting domestic felicity, and for securing the maintenance and education of children."

Joel Prentiss Bishop: "The husband is under obligation to support his wife; so is he to support his children. The obligation in neither case is one of contract, but of law. The relation of parent and child equally with that of husband and wife, from which the former relation proceeds, is a civil status."

Bertrand Russell: "But for children, there would be no need for any institution concerned with sex.... [For] it is through children alone that sexual relations become of importance to society."

Bronislaw Malinowski: "[T]he institution of marriage is primarily determined by the needs of the offspring, by the dependence of the children upon their parents ...."

G. Robina Quale: "Through marriage, children can be assured of being born to both a man and a woman who will care for them as they mature."

James Q. Wilson: "Marriage is a socially arranged solution for the problem of getting people to stay together and care for children that the mere desire for children, and the sex that makes children possible, does not solve."

W. Bradford Wilcox: "As a virtually universal human idea, marriage is about regulating the reproduction of children, families, and society."

This long-prevailing view of marriage was aptly summarized by the preeminent sociologist Kingsley Davis: "The genius of the family system is that, through it, the society normally holds the biological parents responsible for each other and for their offspring." ("Contemporary Marriage: Comparative Perspectives On A Changing Institution")

Social science has confirmed the common-sense, cultural understanding that children benefit when they are raised in a stable family by the biological couple who brought them into this world. "[R]esearch clearly demonstrates that family structure matters for children, and the family structure that helps children the most is a family headed by two biological parents in a low-conflict marriage." (Kristen Anderson Moore, et al., "Marriage from a Child's Perspective, Child Trends Research Brief " 2002)

These benefits appear to flow in substantial part from the biological connection shared by a child with both his mother and father. "[I]t is not simply the presence of two parents ... but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children's development."

Research rebuts the suggestion that either fathers or mothers are unnecessary for effective childrearing. "[T]here are strong theoretical reasons for believing that both fathers and mothers are important, and the huge amount of evidence of relatively poor average outcomes among fatherless children makes it seem unlikely that these outcomes are solely the result of the correlates of fatherlessness and not of fatherlessness itself." (Norval D. Glenn, "The Struggle for Same-Sex Marriage," 2004)

Other experts agree. "The burden of social science evidence supports the idea that gender-differentiated parenting is important for human development and that the contribution of fathers to childrearing is unique and irreplaceable." (David Popenoe, "Life Without Father: Compelling New Evidence That Fatherhood and Marriage Are Indispensable For The Good Of Children and Society"1996)

"The weight of scientific evidence seems clearly to support the view that fathers matter." (James Q. Wilson, "The Marriage Problem" 2002)

Conversely, when procreation and child-rearing take place outside stable, biological family units, children may suffer: "Children in single-parent families, children born to unmarried mothers, and children in stepfamilies or cohabiting relationships face higher risks of poor outcomes than do children in intact families headed by two biological parents. Parental divorce is also linked to a range of poorer academic and behavioral outcomes among children. There is thus value for children in promoting strong, stable marriages between biological parents." (Moore, "Marriage From A Child's Perspective")

Upsetting the settled definition of marriage by adopting an untested genderless definition carries risks for children parented by same-sex couples. A diverse group of 70 prominent scholars recently concluded that "no one can definitively say at this point how children are being affected by being reared by same-sex couples." (Witherspoon Institute, "Marriage and The Public Good: Ten Principles" 2008) Given what we know about the adverse effects of fatherless parenting, encouraging more same-sex parenting may well increase negative outcomes for increasingly large numbers of children.

More broadly, altering the definition of marriage threatens to dilute its power to carry out its vital social function. Traditional marriage is much more than a legal construct. It embodies a rich set of social, cultural, and (for most) religious understandings and images that serve to channel procreative heterosexual couples into enduring marital unions for the benefit of children, among other reasons. There is no evidence that widespread adoption of a genderless definition of marriage would have that same power. In the wake of changes like the sexual revolution and no-fault divorce, no one can deny that social and legal incentives are closely linked to child welfare.

Secular arguments by religious leaders

Although our faith communities have embedded marriage in rich religious narratives, our support for traditional marriage is not based on exclusively spiritual grounds. We have numerous secular and empirical reasons for supporting the traditional definition of marriage.

Our own long experience confirms that children fare best when raised by caring biological parents who have the biggest stake in their well-being and who can provide both male and female role models. We are concerned about the happiness and welfare of our members, especially our member children. Through millions of hours of counseling and other ministry over literally centuries, we have seen at close range the enormous benefits that traditional male-female marriage imparts. We have also witnessed the substantial adverse consequences for children, parents, and civil society that often flow from alternative household arrangements.

... such effects are not impersonal statistics. Our faith communities are intimately familiar with the personal tragedies so often associated with fatherless and motherless parenting and family disintegration.

As religious institutions, we also uniquely understand the power of symbols, words, and definitions. Law is a civics teacher. "[L]aw is not just an ingenious collection of devices to avoid or adjust disputes and to advance this or that interest, but also a way that society makes sense of things." (Mary Ann Glendon, "Abortion And Divorce In Western Law: American Failures, European Challenges" 1987Those who advocate same-sex marriage seek to replace the male-female definition of marriage with a genderless definition. That momentous change in its nature and symbolism would have profound consequences. It would transform the official meaning, imagery, and purpose of marriage from an age-old institution centered on uniting men and women for the bearing and rearing of children to a new institution centered on affirming and facilitating intimate adult relationships. Lost will be the social understanding that marriage is special because of the children it often generates and because it provides those children with the mother and father they need for optimal childhood development. Whatever the choices of individual couples, children will no longer be central to the purpose and meaning of marriage. The powerful imagery of marriage will change as two adults, regardless of gender, occupy center stage, rather than exclusively a man and a woman. Profound and intractable tensions will arise between civil and religious understandings of marriage, fracturing a centuries-old consensus and turning what is now a point of social unity into a source of conflict.

Whether or not one agrees with such changes, and others we cannot know from our current vantage point, one cannot pretend they will not occur if marriage is redefined or that they don't matter:

"One may see these kinds of social consequences of legal change as good, or as questionable, or as both. But to argue that these kinds of cultural effects of law do not exist, and need not be taken into account when contemplating major changes in family law, is to demonstrate a fundamental lack of intellectual seriousness about the power of law in American society." (Institute For American Values, Marriage and The Law: A Statement Of Principles 2006)

The question is: Who decides? In a representative democracy, that authority lies with the political branches, not the judiciary.