What's really undermining the sanctity of marriage?
By Dahlia Lithwick
Within nanoseconds of the Massachusetts Supreme Court's declaration that gay marriage is protected by the Constitution came predictions of the end of life as we know it: The president, speaking from London, warned: "Marriage is a sacred institution between a man and a woman. Today's decision of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court violates this important principle."
"The time is now. If you don't do something about this, then you cannot in 20 years—when you see the American public disintegrating and you see our enemies overtaking us because we have no moral will—you remember that you did nothing," said Sandy Rios, president of the Concerned Women for America, to her 1 million radio listeners. "We must amend the Constitution if we are to stop a tyrannical judiciary from redefining marriage to the point of extinction," Focus on the Family urged in a statement on Tuesday.
Extinction, no less. The institution of marriage—the one that survived Henry VIII, Lorena Bobbitt, Nick Lachey and Jessica Simpson—is suddenly going to become extinct?
Do you want to know what's destroying the sanctity of marriage? Phone messages like the ones we'd get at my old divorce firm in Reno, Nev., left on Saturday mornings and picked up on Monday: "Beeep. Hi? My name is Misty and I think I maybe got married last night. Could someone call me back and tell me if I could get an annulment? I'm at Circus Circus? Room—honey what room is this—oh yeah. Room 407. Thank you. Beeep."
It just doesn't get much more sacred than that.
Here's my modest request: If you're going to be a crusader for the sanctity of marriage—if you really believe gay marriage will have some vast corrosive, viral impact on marriage as a whole—here's a brief list of other laws and policies far more dangerous to the institution. Go after these first, then pass your constitutional amendment.
Somewhere between 43 percent and 50 percent of marriages end in divorce. If you believe gay marriage is single-handedly eroding a sacred and ancient institution, you cannot possibly be pro-divorce. That means any legislation passed in recent decades making divorce more readily available—from no-fault statutes to the decline of adultery prosecutions—should also be subject to bans, popular referendum, and constitutional amendment.
2. Circus Circus
In general, if there is blood in your body and you are over 18, you can get married, so long as you're not in love with your cousin. (Although even that's OK in some states). You can be married to someone you met at the breakfast buffet. Knowing her last name is optional. And you can be married by someone who was McOrdained on the Internet. So before you lobby to ban gay marriage, you might want to work to enact laws limiting the sheer frivolousness of straight marriage. You should be lobbying for an increase in minimum-age requirements, for mandatory counseling pre-marriage, and for statutory waiting periods before marriages (and divorces) can be permitted.
3. Birth Control
The dissenters in the Massachusetts decision are of the opinion that the only purpose of marriage is procreation. They urge that a sound reason for discriminating against gay couples is that there is a legitimate state purpose in ensuring, promoting, and supporting an "optimal social structure for the bearing and raising of children." If you're going to take the position that marriage exists solely to encourage begetting, you need to oppose childlessness by choice, birth control, living together, and marriage for the post-menopausal. In fact, if you're really looking for "optimal" social structures for childrearing, you need to legislate against single parents, poor parents, two-career parents, alcoholic or sick parents, and parents who (like myself) are afraid of the Baby Einstein videos.
Here's what's really undermining the sacredness of modern marriage: soap operas, wedding planning, longer work days, cuter secretaries, fights over money, reality TV, low-rise pants, mothers-in-law, boredom, Victoria's Secret catalogs, going to bed mad, the billable hour, that stubborn 7 pounds, the Wiggles, Internet chat rooms, and selfishness. In fact we should start amending the Constitution to deal with the Wiggles immediately.
Here's why marriage will likely survive last week's crushing decision out of Massachusetts: Because despite all the horrors of Section 4, above, human beings want and deserve a soul mate; someone to grow old with, someone who thinks our dopey entry in the New Yorker cartoon competition is hilarious, and someone to help carry the shopping bags. Gay couples have asked the state to explain why such privileges should be denied them and have yet to receive an answer that is credible.
The decision to make a marriage "sacred" does not belong to the state—if the state were in charge of mandating sacredness in matrimony, we'd have to pave over both Nevada and Jessica Simpson. We make marriage sacred by choosing to treat it that way, one couple at a time. We make marriage a joke by treating it like a two-week jungle safari. There is no evidence that gay couples are any more inclined toward that latter course than supermodels, rock stars, or that poor spineless bald man on Who Wants to Marry My Dad? There's good evidence that most of them will take the commitment very seriously, as do the rest of us. There will be more "sanctity" in marriage when we recognize that people of all orientations can make sacred choices. Good for Massachusetts for recognizing that truth.