Marriage: Who’s Allowed and Who Decides?

Tonight I attended a panel discussion titled “Marriage: Who’s Allowed and Who Decides?”, hosted by the Parr Center for Ethics. The panel consisted of UNC professors Philip Cohen (Sociology), Erica Roedder (Philosophy) and Randall Styers (Religion), as well as Terri Phoenix of the UNC LGBTQ Center and Tami Fitzgerald of the NC Family Policy Council. However, the star of the panel was Frank Schaeffer, son of the famous theologian and philosopher Frank Schaeffer and author of Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of it Back.

As Schaeffer himself describes it, he grew up “evangelical royalty” in the world of his father’s work. However, as he grew older he became more distant from the evangelical movement and later joined the Greek Orthodox church. While Schaeffer is still a Bible-believing Christian, his views on many issues have changed.

Although Schaeffer personally believes that homosexuality is immoral, he argues that his personal views should not be imposed in the public sphere. Because America is a pluralistic democracy where people hold many different religious views, “no one can claim they own America.” Hence, law should not be based on one group’s beliefs, but on what is fair for society. Schaeffer argues that gay marriage should be allowed in the name of fairness for homosexual couples. The law, he says, should not discriminate. However, Schaeffer is also a strong proponent of religious liberty. Religious groups should not be forced to recognize relationships which go against their teachings, just as his own Greek Orthodox church is not required to give Communion to a non-member.

Schaeffer also takes evangelicals to task for their unfair and often hypocritical treatment of homosexuals. According to Schaeffer, evangelicals have singled homosexuality out as a sin worse than other sexual sins such as adultery and divorce. He says this was easy to do because homosexuals are a very small minority, instead of, for example, the 50% of Christian marriages that end in divorce. This, Schaeffer says, is costing evangelicals much of their credibility as a moral voice.

The rest of the panelists presented a variety of views on the topic.

Terri Phoenix, who married her lesbian partner in Massachusetts, argued that opposition to homosexual marriage was based purely on religious grounds and that the Constitution prevents discrimination. She went so far as to argue that all relationships between consenting individuals, including polygamous ones, should be recognized so long as they are consensual, however she agreed that religious groups should not be forced to recognize these relationships. Dr. Cohen argued for gay marriage based on equality. However he also argued that modern social services have eliminated much of the need for marriage as a bedrock of society, saying “do we want a society that relies on pairs of people to care for each other?”, but added that he was unsure if he supported legal polygamy. Dr. Roedder argued that better maternity and paternity leave as well as pre-marriage counseling are better ways to protect marriage than not allowing gay marriage.  Tami Fitzgerald provided a counter-weight to their arguments, strongly opposing gay marriage and arguing against it on both moral and practical grounds. She stated that marriage between a man and a woman is the bedrock of the family system which has served humanity well for millenia. Therefore, it makes little sense to change a working formula. She countered arguments about discrimination by saying that “every law is about discrimination: and that we have some protected classes such as age, sex and race, but “who you choose to have sex with is not a basis for special rights.”

I had a chance to speak with Frank Schaeffer following the discussion and got to ask him a few questions. First I asked, what about Christians such as William Wilberforce and Harriet Beecher Stowe who were driven by their religious views to take part in politics and became forces for good in the world? He replied by saying that they lived in a different day and age, when a higher percentage of the population of their respective countries were Bible-believing Christians, and therefore they were able to be effective through politics whereas such tactics will not work today and are also unfair to the large percentage of American society which does not follow Christianity. I also asked him about how we determine law, since all laws are based on morality. He agreed that all laws are based on morality, but said that the moral code that governs state conduct is different from the morality that governs everyday life. What Christians need, he says, is a shift in method from engagement in politics to engaging people. Rather than forcing change from the top, we should work at changing people’s opinions.

My own take on this debate is somewhat nuanced. I agree with most of what Frank Schaeffer says about evangelical Christianity being too fixated on and hypocritical about homosexuality. And I agree that this has hurt evangelicals. And I definitely agree that Christians should engage the people instead of trying to enforce change from the top. However, I don’t agree with his argument that gay marriage should be legalized because not allowing it is unfair.

The truth about life is that everything is about interest and incentives. Democratic government has an interest in being fair to its citizens, because citizens control the government.

The reason I don’t agree with allowing gay marriage is because the current marriage policies of most US states are not unfairly discriminatory. Unfair discrimination occurs when a group is denied something for no reason other than their identity. No one in the United States is discriminated against when getting a marriage license. Any person, regardless of sexual orientation, can marry any other person so long as that other person is of the opposite sex. Now, some people might not want to marry someone of the opposite sex, but that is not the law’s problem. Some people might complain that this discriminates against them by keeping them from marrying the person they love, but a lot of heterosexuals don’t get to marry the person they love either. The idea that having heterosexual-only marriage is unfairly discriminatory is based on the idea that the love between a homosexual couple creates discrimination in the law, but laws are based on logic, not emotions.

In short, it is not in the state’s interest to upend its current, fair, policy and base new legislation off of emotional attachment. Since the current policies are not discriminatory, there is no need to change them.

With that said, most segments of the church have tragically failed to minister to the homosexual community. We have pursued opposition to gay marriage for the wrong reasons, and have linked the issue to closely to the Christian message in a tragic way. This has resulted in the gay marriage debate becoming a microcosm for battle over a whole host of cultural issues, which leads to two sides which are spectacularly unable to consider other views. Hopefully, more panels like tonight’s excellent discussion will go a long way towards changing this.

7 thoughts on “Marriage: Who’s Allowed and Who Decides?

  1. Raven Reply


    This was a well-written piece and I believe that you raised some good points. However, I don’t agree with your rationale for opposing same-sex marriage.

    The laws today are indeed unfairly discriminatory. Determining intent of discrimination is difficult in the court of law, but it is quite evident that the federal DOMA and mini-DOMAs (state same-sex marriage bans) are facially discriminatory. The federal DOMA was created in response to the threat to traditional marriage posed by the Baehr v. Lewin case in Hawaii that was on the brink of legalizing same-sex marriage. States followed suit with their own mini-DOMAs. These laws were tailored so that a minority — gays and lesbians — would not be able to marry the people of their choice. If a law is discriminatory in its purpose and its impact, it is unconstitutional. Same-sex marriage bans appear to fall under this category.

    The argument you are making is one that was mimicked when people were justifying anti-miscegenation laws. Their logic was: these laws are not discriminatory because they don’t prevent blacks from marrying — they just must marry within their own race. I think you would agree that such thinking is reprehensible and facially discriminatory.

    I don’t believe this has anything to do with emotion. Granted, I think that marriage has intangible sentimental value that all people should be entitled to. But, it’s more a question of fairness and equality. Any law, at a minimum, must be rationally related to a legitimate state interest. What is the state interest in preventing same-sex marriage? Marriage, after all, has been upheld as a civil right in numerous court cases. Who does this right belong to?

    States that have had to defend same-sex marriage bans have failed to do so. Hawaii, California, and Massachusetts are good examples. Baehr v. Lewin (Miike), In re Marriage Cases, and Goodridge v. Department of Public Health all came up with a similar conclusion: banning same-sex marriage does not further a state interest.

    To add a little humor: we could help ourselves get out of this economic crisis if we just legalized same-sex marriage across the country. Just think about the boon it would bring to the wedding industry!

    I hope that this is the start of a good dialogue about a very controversial topic.


  2. Sure thing Reply

    Your argument — that “any person, regardless of sexual orientation, can marry any other person so long as that other person is of the opposite sex” — sounds eerily similar to arguments in favor of anti-miscegenation laws that banned interracial marriage.

    One could argue: “any person, regardless of race, can marry any other person so long as that other person is of the same race”

    So… do you oppose interracial marriage? The argument you seem to be making here seems to oppose both gay marriages and interracial ones.

  3. Timothy Reply

    While I do agree that the church has done a very poor job of presenting their views wihtin the political community that does not negate the arguements of the religious right. I have run into this struggle myself and have not always done a good job with it. Please do not however assume that we as christians are discriminatory, are oppinions are based solely around the biblical view of marrage. Thus it is not a matter of discrimination, it is a matter of worldviews.

    Im sorry to be the fly in the buttermilk, but there really is no such thing as discrimination based on sexual orientation because sexual orientaion has not been shown to be anything but a choice. The interacial dating annalogy does not apply here as one does not chose their skin color. When you make laws banning certain behaviors, it is not discrimination, its morality. So one is making an unparallel comparison when they categorize homosexuals with african americans and other minorities.

    The idea that we should allow homosexual marrage based on fairness is all well and good, but asumes that life is indeed fair. But one must ask what is supposed fairness? And why should your viewpiont of it overide mine? My veiw of fairness is that we protect americas’ families that are already in such bad shape within and outside the church.

    The opposition being just a moral oppinion I am forsed to ask why one believes allowing homosexual marrage to be the moral good? The christain worldview requires heterosexual marrage. It is clearly given as a command in scripture that if one is going to mary that it be between one man and one woman in a lifelong commitment. However what is the basis upon which one assumes the right or wrongfullness of anything? If it just is, as the oppinion of the pro-homosexual marrage arguement seems to be, then why stop there? Or even why should your oppinion override mine? There is no law that one can create that doesnot “discriminate” if that is what one wishes to say that the conservative is doing, on the basis of your moral oppinion.

    I have several homosexual/lesbian freinds and co-workers, and we get allong fine. Please do not assume that I or christians in general have something personal against homosexuals. From our understanding, that is from Romans chapter one and other passages of the bible, God calls homosexuality wicked. Later in Rom. the writer goes on to tell us in chapter six verse tweenty three, that God is going to judge men in death according to their sin. So our sole goal is not condemnation, it is that we see a real danger here and we want the best for all people.

  4. "identity" Reply

    what you fail to realize is that being homosexual IS part of a person’s identity. the idea that it is a choice is somewhat ridiculous.

    and even if it is a choice, who is the government to legislate that the choice is wrong?

    and as a side note: I don’t know what it is with anti-gay-marriage / people morally opposed to homosexuality with this, but could you not refer to people’s significant others as their “lover”s? if you had a long term girlfriend, would you call her your “lover”? no, because it subtly demeans the relationship, and implies a certain type of relationship. that woman is Terri’s WIFE. At the very least, say partner. and for those who aren’t married, just use the same terminology you would with any heterosexual couple!

  5. cwjones Reply

    Thanks “identity”, I was not aware that I was sounding offensive and I did not mean for it to be anything but a neutral term. I’ve edited it.

    As for all arguments about race, I think you’re making a category mistake. Race is a different category from sexual orientation. Race is a protected class under US law, sexual orientation is not.

    As I said above, the question is fundamentally not about rights and fairness but about the state’s interest.

    I think I might also add that while I am personally opposed to state recognized homosexual marriage, I support allowing the issue to be decided by referendum so that the people can decide what is in their interest as promulgated through government.

  6. Lance Westerlund Reply

    Thanks for your post on the Parr Center’s “Marriage & Family Rights” event. It is the mission of the Parr Center to encourage constructive discussion of the ethical issues of our day. Please visit our blog for further discussion streams on this topic (and many others), particularly with the regard to arguments over the history of the institution of marriage and individualistic motives as a major threat to marriage:

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