"In most societies marriage is considered a fundamental institution. Yet in the past half-century this institution has undergone tremendous change. In the West, the roles of husband and wife have been redefined, interracial marriage has been legalised and divorce has become more common. More change now seems likely, as marriage equality slowly gains acceptance in many parts of the world. When The Economist came out in favour of marriage equality in 1996, no country gave same-sex couples the full right of marriage. When we reiterated our argument eight years later, only two countries—Belgium and the Netherlands—had given full legal status to same-sex unions. Today ten countries fully recognise and perform marriages of same-sex couples.
"But while the direction of change is clear, movement is not inevitable. In America, especially, the debate about the freedom to marry rages on. Supporters say it is a matter of equal rights and acceptance, and that allowing same-sex couples to marry promotes social stability. These arguments carried the day in a California courtroom last year, when a federal judge ruled that there is no 'legitimate (much less compelling) reason' to deny gay couples this 'fundamental right'. But opponents of marriage equality have won many more victories elsewhere in America, and their concerns are often shared by opponents abroad. ... The irony is that both sides acknowledge the overwhelming importance of marriage. But that is about all they agree on, and the profundity of the issue has merely stoked the debate.
"This debate will happen online, and starts on January 3rd 2011. You can sign up for to be notified when this debate begins."
Defending the motion
- The denial of marriage is one of the harshest inequalities inflicted on lesbian and gay families—discrimination enacted by our own government. It hurts families struggling during tough economic times and punishes children by depriving their families of the critical safety-net and meaning that marriage can bring.
Against the motion
- For the majority of Americans, and most human cultures across time and space and history, marriage is the union of husband and wife. These sexual unions deserve their unique status, in law, culture and society, because they really are unique. They can make new life and connect those children in love to their mother and father.
The moderator's opening remarks:
Marriage has long been considered one of society's most fundamental institutions. But the nature of marriage is constantly evolving and the pace of change has increased in the past half century. In the West, we have seen the empowerment of wives, the acceptance of interracial marriage and a startling rise in divorce rates. Of more relevance to this debate, a growing number of countries have also allowed gay couples to wed. When The Economist came out in favour of gay marriage in 1996, no country gave homosexuals the full right of marriage. When we reiterated our argument eight years later, only two countries—Belgium and the Netherlands—had given full legal status to same-sex unions. Today ten countries fully recognise and perform same-sex marriages.read more and comments from readers here.
For supporters, gay marriage is the culmination of society's acceptance of the homosexual lifestyle. Moreover, it is a matter of equal rights. In America, for example, the Government Accountability Office has counted 1,138 statutory provisions that take marital status into account when determining benefits, rights and privileges. Proponents of gay marriage question why committed gay couples are treated differently from their heterosexual counterparts under these laws.
Others, however, see gay marriage as frivolous and potentially harmful to traditional marriage. Society and the state are primarily interested in marriage for the sake of children, so what stake do they have in a relationship that cannot produce them? They argue that the expansion, manipulation and trivialisation of marriage undermine this core institution.
To flesh out these arguments, and introduce new ones, we have two passionate participants in America's debate over gay marriage. Arguing for the motion is Evan Wolfson, the founder and executive director of Freedom to Marry. Opposing him is Maggie Gallagher, the founder of the National Organisation for Marriage.
Mr Wolfson opens up the proceedings by noting the prominent Americans who have recently come out in favour of gay marriage. Indeed, support for gay marriage in America seems to increase every year, but most polls still show greater opposition, and most referendums in support of gay marriage have failed. Mr Wolfson says that "there is no good reason" to continue excluding gay couples from marriage, but a plurality (and perhaps majority) of Americans obviously disagree. Are the benefits of including homosexual couples in marriage so compelling as to warrant ignoring the will of the people? And how does Mr Wolfson feel about civil unions, which more Americans are inclined to support?
On the other side of the debate, Ms Gallagher argues that the "key purpose of marriage in both law and culture" is the creation and raising of children. "If gay unions are marriages, then this is no longer what marriage is about," she says. But is this really the defining element of marriage? After all, barren women are allowed to marry. In fact, as Jonathan Rauch has pointed out, sterile heterosexual unions in America far outnumber homosexual ones. Do those relationships fall outside the marriage model?
Gay adoption and artificial insemination also complicate Ms Gallagher's argument. While the presence of children would seem to qualify gay couples for marriage on her grounds, she adds that "children need a mom and a dad". The same assertion was made in defence of California's Proposition 8, but lawyers were unable to back up the claim in court. There have been numerous studies on the effects of child rearing by same-sex parents. Can Ms Gallagher point to any that support her position?
My questions aside, our two debaters have put forward thoughtful opening arguments. One thing they both agree on is the importance of marriage, but I imagine this will only intensify the debate. So before I hand it over to them, I want to encourage the audience to comment and vote, and implore everyone to maintain a civil tone. Like a marriage, this debate will benefit from mutual respect and understanding.