What’s the Harm?

Does Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage Really Harm Individuals, Families, or Society?

Book Notice

What’s the Harm? Does Legalizing Same-Sex Marriage Really Harm Individuals, Families, or Society? edited by Lynn D. Wardle (Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 2008)

Written by nineteen interdisciplinary authors and edited by BYU professor of family law Lynn D. Wardle, What’s the Harm? responds to several questions concerning same-sex marriage: does legalizing same-sex marriage harm traditional families? Does it discourage responsible sexual behavior and procreation? How does it affect the meaning of marriage? Does it impair basic freedoms to citizens and institutions?

In this potpourri of scholarly and legal papers, attorneys, educators, family counselors, and even linguists document through scientific studies and court cases the consequences already inflicted on men, women, and innocent children through practices such as abortion and no-fault divorce. Because such practices contribute to the breakdown of families and have longitudinal and intergenerational effects, they provide the social, moral, familial, relational, political, and conceptual architecture of the community. The harms are seldom seen immediately by the general public. Likewise, the preponderance of evidence from more than a dozen authors is unified in agreeing that history, natural law, common law, and common sense uphold traditional marriage. These authors passionately support marriage between a male and female as the foundation of family and community morality.

University of Minnesota law professor Dale Carpenter, in one of four chapters defending same-sex marriage, likens gay families to “a rising river, stretching across the country,” and conservative opposition as a dam that blocks the way. “Impeded in its natural course, the river does not dry up. Its flow is simply redirected into a hundred rivulets and low pastures all around the countryside.” Whether readers agree with Carpenter’s views on same-sex marriage, he is right that such oppositional forces are not likely to retreat: “Many conservatives may think that the collateral damage that is being done by the opposition to gay marriage is worth it in the end” (324).

If there is going to be any resolution in this divisive debate, it will most likely take place in a flood of credible information. Such is the goal of Wardle’s 393-page paperback anthology published by University Press of America. What’s the Harm? is a critical and timely book for those of various religious faiths and political persuasions who desire to open a dialogue with those of differing views as well as to defend marriage in an educated way.

Perhaps the most unsettling analysis of potential damages to family, constitution, and society is in chapter 17, “Or for Poorer? How Same-Sex Marriage Threatens Religious Liberty,” by Roger T. Servino. He describes the chilling effect that same-sex marriage would have on religious liberty and religious institutions should the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) be changed or repealed. Such a transformation would impact “adoption, education, employee benefits, health care, employment, discrimination, government contracts and subsidies, taxation, tort law, and trusts and estates.” In turn, the new legal regimes would “directly govern the ongoing daily operations of religious organizations of all stripes, including parishes, schools, temples, hospitals, orphanages, retreat centers, soup kitchens, and universities” (326).

Servino and other authors argue that “current law provides no room for non-uniform definitions of marriage within a state, it is all or nothing. But even across state lines it is difficult to countenance variable definitions . . . because of difficult questions like child custody. The high stakes reinforce the uncompromising posture of the contending sides.” Legalizing same-sex marriage will further induce governments to strip benefits from religious institutions that refuse to treat a legally married same-sex couple as morally equivalent to a married man and woman (326).

Although supporting same-sex marriage in Canada, Martha Bailey’s essay “Dwelling among Us” calls for “a more nuanced and careful response to this divisive issue. We do not all hold the same values, but we can agree on much, particularly on the importance of healthy human flourishing, tolerance and mutual respect.” Genuine pluralism can flourish when differences are “debated rather than ignored.” A unity can unfold in human affairs when we engage in what John Courtney Murray calls “the unity of orderly conversation” (160). What’s the Harm? most certainly moves us in the direction of a more nuanced and careful response as well as orderly conversation while helping to flood us with balanced information.

 

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