Strengthening marriage

FamilyMarriageSocial IssuesReligion and BeliefSame-Sex MarriageRoman CatholicismChristianity

Ravens center Matt Birk has entered the debate over same-sex marriage, both here and in his native Minnesota. He has done so in a thoughtful and respectful way that is rooted in his Roman Catholic faith and rejects hateful language or homophobia. He raises serious questions about the reason for government's involvement in marriage, the institution's place in society and the effect that allowing same-sex marriage will have. They deserve serious answers.

Mr. Birk first made his arguments in the context of a proposed constitutional amendment that would ban same-sex marriage in Minnesota. He published an op-ed in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune last Sunday and recorded a lengthy video for the Minnesota Catholic Conference. On Friday, he released a short, less-detailed explanation of his opinion on the Maryland marriage referendum.

His view is this: Marriage is a special institution that provides the best environment for the raising of children, and it is important that it be defined specifically as the union between a man and a woman because each gender brings specific attributes to the family. Mr. Birk says he recognizes that this ideal is not always possible for reasons such as death and divorce and that many single parents "work very hard to provide what's best for kids." However, he says recognizing "genderless marriage" would normalize a moral relativism that has diminished the strength of the institution in a way that over time will "affect the broader well-being of children and the welfare of society."

Mr. Birk's concerns for the promotion of marriage and for the well-being of children are entirely appropriate. Marriage is, indeed, becoming rarer in American society. The Pew Research Center reported in December that marriage rates for American adults were at an all-time low, 51 percent, down from 72 percent in 1960. The New York Times reported this summer that 41 percent of births in the United States occur outside marriage, up from 17 percent 30 years ago. Although, as Mr. Birk notes, there are admirable exceptions, children who grow up without the benefit of married parents generally face greater social instability, less nurturing time and diminished educational and economic prospects.

What he fails to recognize is that marriage equality is part of the solution, not the problem. The Census Bureau reports that there were 514,735 unmarried, same-sex partner households in the United States in 2010, most of them in states where same-sex marriage is not legally recognized. Given the rapid rise in the number of same-sex couples who are married — the Census Bureau reports an increase of 27.5 percent in the last 10 years — it's a safe bet that many of them would get married if given the chance. We do not strengthen the institution of marriage or promote its value to society by denying hundreds of thousands of people the right to enter into it. On the contrary, the fight by gay and lesbian couples for the chance to legally wed affirms just how important marriage is.

But what about the well-being of children raised in same-sex households versus those raised by heterosexual married couples? Mr. Birk suggsts that fathers and mothers inhabit distinct and immutable roles and that the presence of male and female traits in the household provides the best environment for children. That traditional notion of gender identity was probably never really the case, and in a world in which women are better educated on average and increasingly the primary breadwinners, it certainly is not now. Fathers can be nurturing, and mothers can be disciplinarians, and in most strong families, each parent likely takes on a variety of roles at different times. That is just as true of single-sex couples as it is of heterosexual ones.

The fact also remains that many millions of children are now being raised in settings that do not live up to the ideal because of divorce, out-of-wedlock birth, neglect, abuse, abandonment and many other circumstances. The state can do little to prevent that. But we can do something for the thousands of Maryland children living in same-sex households and the thousands more who can and will be adopted by gay parents no matter what happens to the same-sex marriage law. We can provide them with the rights and protections that marriage affords, and despite Mr. Birk's reference in his Maryland video to the handful of rights granted to gay couples under state law, we have not come close to doing so.

But as Mr. Birk's advocacy on this issue suggests, marriage is about more than bundles of rights. Question 6 is about whether we recognize committed same-sex couples to be equal in society. That will protect children and strengthen the institution of marriage.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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