Marriage is under intensified assault in two federal courtrooms.

Last week a federal district judge in Massachusetts acted alone to overrule 427 members of Congress who voted in 1996 to adopt the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), a measure signed into law by President Clinton.

DOMA has two major provisions. First, it affirms that the definition of marriage and related words like spouse and husband in federal law refers only to relationships between one man and one woman. Second, the law sets forth the intent of Congress that none of the 50 states are required to give “full faith and credit” to the action of any other state legislature or court that redefines marriage as anything but the union of a man and a woman.

The judge struck down the first provision of DOMA. The immediate effect of the ruling, if it is upheld, will be to overturn more than 1,100 laws conferring benefits and privileges on same-sex couples with Massachusetts marriage certificates. But the court’s ruling is not really about expanding benefits and rights. The court struck a much deeper blow, holding that Congress had no rational basis whatsoever to protect traditional marriage. The ruling inferred that the huge pro-DOMA bipartisan majorities in Congress, and presumably President Clinton, could only have been motivated by “animus” and “irrational prejudice.”

Meanwhile, an even graver threat to the definition of marriage—as well as to the public’s right to debate the meaning of marriage in the representative branches of government—is coming to a boiling point in California. Federal District Judge Vaughn Walker could rule any day on the constitutionality of California voters’ 2008 decision to reverse their Supreme Court and protect marriage in the state constitution. A decision of this kind — again, if it is upheld — could have implications for every other constitutional amendment and the DOMA laws that now exist nationally and in the vast majority of states.

The importance of marriage as a pre-political institution that confers immense benefits by wedding mothers and fathers in the cooperative task of raising children is demonstrated with increasing force every passing year. The health of families is central to the health—and wealth—of nations. No institution of civil society accomplishes more than the family unit, enduring over time and building bonds across generations, to undergird civil society. At the same time, a vibrant civil society of core institutions—family, church, and voluntary associations—provides the surest bulwark against the relentless expansion of the state. If the last four decades teach us anything, it is that the growing separation of fathers, mothers, and children through out-of-wedlock childbearing and assaults on cultural norms invites massive state interventions in the name of alleviating poverty, crime, educational decline, and other ills.

These interventions, in turn, frequently undercut and accelerate the weakening of civil society and the freedoms it guarantees.
Marriage matters, therefore, because of its irreplaceable role in “nurturing children, providing them with mothers and fathers, and building and maintaining relationships” among them. It “is a fundamental institution necessary for societal existence and well-being” that only the most arrogant of activist courts would presume to redefine for all Americans.