The institution of marriage has seen better days in America. The question now is how Americans will think about, shape, and participate in marriage going forward. Will Americans seek to strengthen marriage, including through laws and policies that promote the public goods of responsible childbearing and the faithfulness of husbands and wives to each other and their dependent children? Or, will Americans reject the traditional understanding of marriage and replace it with mere government recognition of whatever private arrangements two or more people wish to make?

Throughout history, and in the law of most jurisdictions in America still today, marriage has been understood as a natural institution involving the unique unions of men and women. Legal regulations and social norms concerning entry into and exit from marriage and the incidents and effects of marriage might have changed through time. However, until quite recently, “it was an accepted truth for almost everyone who ever lived, in any society in which marriage existed, that there could be marriages only between participants of different sex.” After all, only unions between individuals of different sexes can naturally produce children and, “but for children, there would be no need of any institution concerned with sex.”

Today, however, the debate about marriage includes not only whether and how to strengthen marriage but also, more fundamentally, what marriage is. In recent weeks, for example:

  • Federal judges in California have ruled against two laws, one state and one federal, that defined marriage as a man and a woman.
  • Legislation passed in Washington and Maryland that redefines marriage in those states, and a ballot measure in November would do the same in Maine.

In other jurisdictions, however, Americans are taking steps to defend, protect, and strengthen marriage—in the process debunking the myth that redefining marriage is somehow a foregone inevitability. For example:

  • After New Jersey lawmakers passed marriage redefinition legislation in February, Governor Chris Christie (R) vetoed it, arguing that the people of the state should decide the issue for themselves.
  • Republican lawmakers who supported same-sex marriage in New York are now facing a political accounting.
  • Pro-marriage groups in Washington and Maryland have announced initiative/referendum challenges to the same-sex marriage laws recently passed in those states.
  • Attorneys defending Proposition 8, the California marriage amendment, have asked a larger panel of judges to review the same-sex marriage decision issued earlier this year by a three-judge panel of the same court.
  • When President Obama and his Department of Justice stopped defending the constitutionality of the federal Defense of Marriage Act, the U.S. House of Representatives, acting through the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group and under the leadership of Speaker John Boehner (R–OH), stepped up to the plate. Lawyers representing the House have appealed a federal court decision that ruled against the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in February.
  • In New Hampshire, proposed legislation would repeal a same-sex marriage law previously enacted in the state.
  • Ballot measures in North Carolina (May) and Minnesota (November) would amend the constitutions in those states to protect marriage as one man and one woman.

As the debate about marriage continues, increasing numbers of Americans will be forced to confront and decide fundamental issues of law, morality, and culture. On the one side of this debate is the view that marriage as one man and one woman is a form of institutionalized bigotry no better than racism. In this view, it is unjust for the state not to bless same-sex unions with both the benefits and label of “marriage.” Private institutions and individuals who object to facilitating or expressing moral support for same-sex marriage could face potential civil liability and discrimination in access to government benefits. Too often, those who disagree with redefining marriage are also subject to public derision and even threats, intimidation, and other harms.

On the other side of this debate is the view that marriage is a natural institution that the state does not create but that the state should protect because of society’s civilizational interest in promoting childbearing and the faithfulness of spouses to each other and their dependent children. Proponents of marriage as one man and one woman focus on the public purposes of marriage, not the private reasons individuals might choose to marry, and have defied intense stereotyping by articulating a wide range of nonreligious reasons for supporting a traditional marriage policy, including that redefining marriage will contribute to an expanded and more intrusive government role in private life. In this view, support for marriage as one man and one woman does not equal animosity against friends, family, and co-workers who experience same-sex attraction. Rather, support for marriage reflects a morally just and constitutionally valid social judgment that the unique union of a husband and wife should be accorded a unique status in culture and law and that doing so provides significant benefits to children and all society.

As the U.S. Supreme Court recognized long ago, “the public is deeply interested” in maintaining the institution of marriage, because “it is the foundation of the family and of society” and without it “there would be neither civilization nor progress.” Marriage remains just as important to society today. Efforts to defend the core meaning of marriage as having something to do with mothers, fathers, and children should be coupled with efforts to strengthen marriage in general.