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A Moral Liberty
Contrary to popular (American) belief, real liberals are not Left (or Right), but pro-liberty.
The Ideas Lab is on a campaign to revive Moral Liberalism.
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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Marriage Equality 'Changes the Definition of Marriage'? That's a Myth.

Opponents of marriage equality have long been charging supporters of equality of 'changing the definition of marriage', often adding that they are doing a dangerous thing by meddling with a long-standing definition.

To this, I answer that yes, we are campaigning to change the way the marriage laws are written. However, this is because the law is rigid as it always is, and hasn't been able to fairly accommodate a minority in our society, gay and lesbian couples.
Marriage itself, however, is defined in culture, rather than law. Different cultural and religious groups may have slightly different definitions of marriage, but they generally do agree on fidelity, family formation and raising the next generation as important elements. Still, not all of these concepts appear in the marriage laws. The marriage laws of a secular state, thus, has never been the cultural authority on marriage.

Does marriage equality 'change the definition of marriage'? I don't believe it does. Whilst not stated in the marriage laws, marriage is generally for a lifelong cohabiting, exclusive sexual relationship. It does not include close friends, for example, indeed any pair of close friends trying to get married without intending a cohabiting, exclusive sexual relationship would generally be met with disapproval culturally. Whilst the law states that marriage 'is a union between a man and a woman' without referencing what I just touched on, you would find that a cohabiting, exclusive sexual relationship would be expected. It appears that around 98% of the population is only capable of entering into a cohabiting, exclusive sexual relationship with the opposite sex. Therefore, even if the law is changed to state that marriage 'is a union between two people', you would find that 98% or more of marriages will remain between a man and a woman. The changed definition creates a flexibility to accommodate a 2% minority. I believe the actual outcome of enshrining marriage equality will change the situation from 'marriage is between a man and a woman as a rule with no exceptions' to 'marriage is between a man and a woman as a rule, but for a small minority who cannot follow this rule we have accommodated their needs compassionately'. That means it's not like the definition of marriage has been changed, we have just compassionately allowed exceptions.

This confusion about the legal vs cultural definition of marriage is a good reason why we need marriage privatization - but let's leave that for another discussion.

We have indeed changed the definition of marriage in the past, as a society. And some of those changes, like no-fault divorce for example, haven't been pretty. But that's a separate issue. Every time we changed the definition of marriage in the past it applied to every couple. For example, legalising interracial marriage meant that every person could choose a spouse of a different race, which is a new choice that is open to every person. Legislating for no-fault divorce meant that every married couple could divorce more easily - again it affected every couple. Marriage equality is about providing equality for a minority of about 2% whilst changing nothing for the vast majority of around 98%. How is that called changing the definition, except technically?