What’s the State Interest in Promoting Gay Marriage?

Over at Little Catholic Bubble, I’ve been talking about the most important question in the gay “marriage” debate: namely, “What is marriage?” What I’ve consistently found is that defenders of the traditional definition of marriage have a pretty good idea of what marriage is (or at least, is supposed to be), while advocates of gay marriage can’t seem to pin down what exactly “marriage” means in the first place. They want it, but don’t know what they want.

Today, I wanted to ask a second question: why should the State promote gay “marriage” at all?  Presuming, for the sake of argument, that there is some rational (non-circular and non-arbitrary) definition of marriage that includes what we’ve always understood as marriage, plus gay “marriage,” but excludes all other potential forms of “marriages” (polygamy, consensual incest, etc.), why should the State reward that bond with hundreds of state benefits?

In other words, there are solid reasons why the State favors marriage, as it’s traditionally understood.  It’s not about romance (from the State’s perpsective), but the well-being of any children or potential children.  But this rationale doesn’t hold for gay “marriage.”

I. Why The State Favors Marriage

If a heterosexual couple is having sex (coitus, specifically), there’s a good likelihood that they’ll end up having children. As such, there’s good reason for cultures to encourage couples having sex to be married: that is, to make a lifelong contractual commitment to each other, for better or worse. Otherwise, you get all sorts of problems tied with broken homes, and the like.

Broadly speaking, there are two potential ways of encouraging marriage: the carrot and the stick. The stick was the historical stigma attached to out-of-wedlock pregnancy, infidelity, illegitimacy, and the like (and sometimes a lot worse than stigma, like stoning). We’ve quite sensibly set the stick down as a culture. The carrot, in contrast, is the bundle of special rights and benefits conferred on the married: preferential tax treatment, the automatic conveyance of all sorts of rights, etc. Here, we encourage marriage as a culture, without stepping on anyone’s toes.

So it’s true that these rights can be harder to acquire for unmarried couples (gay or straight). The state, and the culture, is expressing a clear preference that coitus be in the confines of this contractual framework.

This is discrimination of a sort, yes. But it’s not discrimination against gays (or roommates, or anyone else). It’s discrimination in favor of married couples.  It’s social engineering through tax and fiscal policy, which the state does every day. Think about the child tax credit, which rewards parenting, or the new market tax credit, which rewards the use of green energy: this form of “discrimination” is so widespread as to be absolutely unremarkable.

II. How Does Gay “Marriage” Fit in, Then?

So we give favors to married couples capable of coitus, in an effort to encourage stable families. This is also why cultures have always closely regulated marriage norms and rules. Gay marriage advocates point to the apparent inequality in how same-sex couples are treated compared to married (heterosexual) couples. But same-sex couples are treated the same way as unmarried heterosexual couples, and as close friends, roommates, etc.

What can be said of gay “marriage,” then? Any redefinition of marriage would almost certainly end up looking like “long-term roommates who are having sex.” But what interest does the State have in promoting that? I’m not asking if you think it’s moral or immoral, or you think it’s gross. I’m wondering why the State would spend tax dollars to favor roommates having sex over roommates who aren’t.

To see what I mean, take two hypothetical roommates: Jim and Mark. They care about each other deeply, have each other’s best interest in mind, and have a long-term lease on a house together, with lots of shared property. Same-sex marriage advocates would say that if Jim and Mark are just friends, they should get one set of rights. But if they’re having sex, and want to be called “married,” they get a whole new set of expanded rights. So, for example, if Jim leaves everything to Mark in his will, Mark gets it tax free if they claim to be married, but not otherwise.

In other words, we end up discriminating in favor of “married” gay couples over, say, unmarried hetereosexuals. Why? What valid reasoning supports this discrimination?

III. Conclusion

So it’s true that the State historically discriminates in favor of traditional marriage, to help ensure that couples having potentially-reproductive sex are doing so within a legal and social framework that’s stable for any potential children.  This discrimination is in favor of married heterosexual couples over all other individuals and groupings of individuals out of a legitimate state interest in promoting marriage and two-parent families.

 But same-sex marriage favors gay couples who want to be married over gay couples who don’t want to be married, straight couples who don’t want to be married, polygamist groupings, close friends, roommates, and so forth. And this discrimination in favor of gay couples who call themselves married seems to me to be arbitrary, if not outright irrational.  Are there some counter arguments that I’m missing here?


  1. Now this is an interesting question Joe. I have been wondering this for a while now. As a celibate I have been wondering why same-sex marriage couples should be able to get tax breaks that I don’t. After all we have the same chance of having kids.

    I think children are the state interest in marriage. The state knows that children raised by a stable mother and father that are married are less likely to do drugs or commit crimes and more likely to become productive citizens. The state has an interest in that, so they give an incentive. Get married and you can file taxes jointly with other benefits. Now we have come a far way from that, but I think that’s how it started. Now the state is the mainly the distributor of property after a divorce, but again this was started for the sake of children, that they are provided for. But if marriage is no longer about kids (with the recognition of same-sex marriage it obviously isn’t.) Then why should two people go to the government to get recognized. Ron Paul actually brings this up at debates. That the constitution says nothing about marriage, and if you can find a religion to call your relationship a marriage so be it, but why should everyone else recognize it.

    The Catholic Church is one of the few institutions that actually have a dept. for dealing with marriage cases. The marriage tribunal. This is from our experience of dealing with marriage before there was a government that handed out licenses. I think there will come a time soon when the bishops will be telling the government to get out of the marriage business altogether.

  2. This is how I see it. Like most other things that relativism desires, it uses things as a means to an ultimate end. Relativism’s end game is… well total entropy where the only order is disorder.

    Let me explain. Relativists, here supporters of State sanctioned ‘same-sex marriage’ see marriage as the cornerstone of societal structure. Yes it is a double standard, but it is the building block to the rest of society and they know it.

    So to justify other things, they use it. Adoption for non-married parents? Well, children exist because of families, and one could say FOR families. So, ‘same-sex’ marriage “makes” a family for adoption. Benefits – health, life, insurance, gym memberships – they are given to families. Sure, they are given for the reasons you state above, but people want them and their “cake” too.

    Same-sex marriage obviously doesnt have an intrinsic quality to it, but it is instead fabricated to be the basis for other things. Certainly these are people that love one another. This is not a denial of any of the interpersonal relational aspects, simply its societal functionality. So it is created to be a basis for other things. It kills two (or more) birds with one stone.

    The irony of course, is that it ultimately purports to give people what they already can have. It isn’t logical though, because it puts the cart before the horse.

    I hate writing in comboxes, I write in stream of consciousness and never want to be too long… but it ends up being disjointed nonsense.

  3. Joseph K,

    I think you’ve fallen into the “redefining” trap. You’ve consented to their definition of “love”.

    It’s my impression that Christianity believes “love” is the giving of oneself to another so that the other may go to Heaven. It’s how Christ exhibited his Love to us. It’s also how Christians have entered into marriage, more so that we may be holy than to be happy (although we always hope for happy). Is there any way a person can possibly “love” another by falling into mortal sin with them?


  4. Joe, what about Catholic marriages where the couple knowingly can’t have children, either because of age or medical condition? Does the church advise them not to get married, or is there more to Christian marriage than to raise children?

  5. Brandon, I thought I’d replied to thank you for the link, but apparently I got distracted. Whoops!


    A case in which the pregnancy is exceedingly unlikely (due to age or medical condition) is still marriage material. After all, Abraham’s wife Sara conceived at 99. And even short of a miracle, there are a lot of presumptively postmenopausal women who have gotten pregnant (including plenty without artificial aids). Because they can still have sex, and because that carries at least a tiny possibility of reproduction, marriage can exist. For that same reason, the state has some interest in protecting and regulating that union.

    A case in which the couple genuinely cannot consummate their marriage is different. In that case, a full sacramental marriage cannot occur, from a Catholic perspective.

    And from a secular perspective, it raises the obvious question: why should the state regulate that non-sexual companionship in any way? What benefit or risk is there that warrants governmental involvement?

    God bless,


  6. Good evening! Recently, I wrote an essay about Catholics and gay marriage, and in response, someone linked to your post. I think there is a fallacy in your essay that I’d like you to comment upon.

    You begin with the premise that the state favors marriage for “the well-being of children or potential children.” This premise is problematic in at least two ways.

    (1) It does not have a strong basis in history. It is difficult to unravel secular customs from religious practices, but historically speaking, the state’s interest in marriage was fundamentally one of property rights between two families. Insofar as a marriage involved children, the state’s interest was again the property arrangements: the marriage determined lawful heirs. The concept of the “well-being of children” is a relatively modern one.

    (2) This premise simply does not reflect marriage as it is practiced today. The state has absolutely no fertility requirements, no sexual requirements, and no requirements whatsoever regarding children. Couples may be sterilized, they may have an abortion; in short, they may choose to never procreate, or even copulate, and still be legally married.

    To me, it seems that you use the Catholic concept of marriage in place of the state’s definition. I do not mean to say that the Catholic conception of marriage is wrong. My point is that the Catholic Church should not ask that its doctrine on marriage supersede beliefs about marriage held by other religions, nor should it supplant the state’s definition and be written into secular laws.


  7. Hello again. I’ve been thinking about your post and my response to it. I apologize if I sounded inflammatory in point (2). My intention was to express most emphatically that the state makes no assumption about a marrying couple’s interest in child-rearing, nor does it inquire about a couple’s physical (or mental) fitness for parenting. On the other hand, these are important considerations for a Catholic couple contemplating marriage.

    Upon reflection, another more basic flaw in your argument occurs to me. If I accept your premise that the state’s interest in marriage is to protect the interests of children, shouldn’t the state hasten to legalize gay marriage? Marriage improves the legal, social, and financial status of couples, and the children of same-sex couples would certainly benefit from such enhanced security and stability.

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