The catchcry of same-sex marriage proponents is “equality”: gay couples have a right to equal treatment and to deny them legal marriage is blatant discrimination.
Yet this claim deflects attention from the real issue: what is the true nature of marriage?
Two rival visions jostle for supremacy. The conjugal model says marriage is a lifelong union between a man and a woman. The partnership model says marriage is a contract between committed loving couples.
Conjugal marriage is a comprehensive union (mental and physical, emotional and sexual) of a man and a woman.
Marriage has a true essence, a fundamental core; it is a real phenomenon, not just a human invention or convention.
A crocodile is a crocodile, a tree is a tree, a river is a river. We did not invent crocodiles, we simply discovered them and named them. We can call a hippopotamus a crocodile if we want but that does not change its essential nature.
All it does is lead to confusion.
Marriage is a pre-political institution.
States recognise marriage; they do not invent it. States value the institution in which men and women commit indefinitely and exclusively to each other and to the children their sexual union commonly (but not invariably) produces.
Gay marriage proponents will argue that defines marriage so as to exclude gay couples, a neat trick that fools no- one.
Not so. Recall their key claim: gay couples deserve equal legal recognition.
That is an empty argument. To insist upon equality is to require that “like things be treated alike”.
So X and Y should be treated equally for X and Y are alike. But we need to know in what respects X is like Y and whether these characteristics are morally valid before we can be confident that they merit equal treatment.
We must have a standard for deciding which characteristics count and which don’t.
Is gay (partnership) marriage “like” conjugal marriage?
In some respects, yes: both may involve monogamous couples who have a deep commitment to each other.
Both can express this commitment in a sexual fashion and raise children (if any) in a caring way.
In other respects, however, the answer is no: lacking sexual complementarity, gay couples cannot achieve complete sexual bodily union.
And lacking reproductive capability they cannot be biological parents.
They can nurture children but they cannot provide the example that a father and a mother can, the intangible things that only a father and a mother can supply. They lack the inherent structure to rear well-rounded, psychologically secure children.
Who says these attributes – sexual complementarity, reproductive capacity – are “essential”?
Who says this is the standard?
We did. We decided that marriage involves the comprehensive sexual union of a man and a woman.
We decided that, ideally, children are best raised by their biological father and mother.
When I say “we”, I mean every culture, tribe and race since antiquity has recognised these as essential elements of this thing called marriage and accorded such unions special status.
Perhaps every society throughout the ages has got it wrong and we alone in the West have now stumbled upon the truth.
But I think not.
The wanton use of the slogan “equality” just skews the debate.
The tactic is to brazenly repeat that conjugal marriage and partnership marriage are equal – as if this were somehow self-evident – then require that those who deny this to show why “unequal” treatment is justified.
And who can be against “equality”?
Opponents must show why this enlightened proposal is wrong, rather than gay marriage proponents having to demonstrate why the partnership model deserves to replace the existing institution. And make no mistake.
To redefine marriage is to abolish it.
Partnership marriage does not keep the existing institution and simply allow more persons to join it. Instead it eviscerates it and substitutes a radical experimental concept.
Gay couples should not be permitted to marry because they lack the essential traits that constitute true (conjugal) marriage.
We may treat gay couples the same as heterosexual couples when it comes to property division, pensions, inheritance and so on, but not when it comes to marriage.
Here, the two are simply not alike.
In the end sit still, close your eyes and quietly ask yourself: can a man marry another man and a woman wed another woman?
What on earth have we come to?
* Rex Ahdar is a law professor at Otago University.