On December 9th, the Iowa Supreme Court will hear arguments in the case of Varnum v. Brien, which is a suit against Polk County brought by six same-sex couples who were denied marriage licenses. The lower court ruled that denying these Iowans the right to marry was unconstitutional. The case may well decide whether gay marriage will or will not be allowed in Iowa.
Although I’m a country boy with conservative personal (although not always political) beliefs and a Christian upbringing, I hope the plaintiffs win and gay marriage is allowed. I don’t care much about “gay rights,” but I do care about “individual rights.” If those individuals happen to be homosexuals, so what?
Ideally the question at stake should not be whether or not gays should be granted marriage licenses, but whether or not a government entity should be issuing marriage licenses at all. Marriage existed long before the Iowa state or Polk County governments and throughout most of its history marriage didn’t need a bureaucrat’s stamp of approval. In England, for example, it wasn’t until 1754 that marriage became regulated by law.
Cato Institute scholar David Boaz argues that marriage licensing, like many over-reaching government functions, could be privatized. Says Boaz: “‘Privatizing’ marriage can mean two slightly different things. One is to take the state completely out of it. If couples want to cement their relationship with a ceremony or ritual, they are free to do so. Religious institutions are free to sanction such relationships under any rules they choose. A second meaning of ‘privatizing’ marriage is to treat it like any other contract: The state may be called upon to enforce it, but the parties define the terms. When children or large sums of money are involved, an enforceable contract spelling out the parties’ respective rights and obligations is probably advisable. But the existence and details of such an agreement should be up to the parties.
“And privatizing marriage would, incidentally, solve the gay-marriage problem. It would put gay relationships on the same footing as straight ones, without implying official government sanction. No one’s private life would have official government sanction–which is how it should be.”
However, according to the plaintiffs in Varnum v. Brien, Iowa law refers to marriage, directly or indirectly, at least 540 times. The state has effectively tethered itself to the marriage business, so the ad hoc approach of fighting within the current licensing regime is probably the best course for same-sex advocates.
While the government might have to be brought into this kicking and screaming, it appears that culturally we’ve already crossed the Rubicon. A recent survey of Iowa voters found that about 60% favored allowing same-sex unions. 28.1% supported “gay marriage,” while another 30.2% supported same-sex “civil unions.” 32% opposed both.
If gay marriage does go through, I know a lot of folks that are going to go through the roof. But my conservative-Christian friends can console themselves with the fact that, if they’re right, God will have far worse punishment waiting for gay couples than mere license denial. But it is His call, not the state’s.