On Tuesday, citizens in Maryland, Minnesota, Washington, and Maine will consider ballot questions on marriage. While The New York Times doesn’t want citizens deciding the civic meaning and purpose of marriage for themselves, Sherif Girgis and I argue on National Review Online that “we the people” should decide it for ourselves:

Citizens should seek to enshrine in law a sound conception of marriage, taking account of sexual embodiment and complementarity, the way sexual powers are ordered to procreation, and the ideal family structure for providing children with both mother and father.

As we argue with Robert P. George in our new book What Is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense, marriage is a pre-political good springing from human nature itself. Prior to any governmental diktats, marriage is, of its essence, a comprehensive (mind-body) union of persons, ordered to the comprehensive sharing of family life. And only as a result of both these facts, it alone calls in a principled way for comprehensive commitment: permanent and exclusive. Marriage is, in short, a conjugal union. It makes a man and woman “one flesh” — in acts of conjugal love, and in the children that love brings forth — for the whole of life.

Some people fear that government involvement in marriage is at odds with principles of limited government. But as I argue at Doublethink, promoting marriage as a conjugal union between a man and a woman is the least restrictive way a government can help ensure that children are reared to become healthy, upright, economically productive and responsible citizens that make limited government possible.

Government promotes the institution of marriage because of the ways in which marriage serves the political common good. Marriage brings together a man and woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children their union produces. As the sexual acts that unite a man and a woman are the same acts that bring forth new life, the state has an interest in channeling sexual desire toward a stable relationship: marriage. As children have a right to, and tend to do best when, reared by their mother and father, the state protects child welfare by encouraging adults to make commitments to each other and their children by living according to the norms of marriage. So while the state disregards our ordinary friendships and extended family relationships, it rightly regulates and promotes marriage and marital childbearing and rearing.

Those who support recognizing same-sex relationships as if they were marriages frequently argue that there are “no differences” between conjugal marriage and same-sex relations, especially when it comes to the outcomes for children. In two articles for Public Discourse, political scientist Matthew Franck documents the controversy surrounding Mark Regnerus’s recent study showing that children of parents who had same-sex relationships tend to have, on average, more negative outcomes; and points to new analyses that vindicate Regnerus’s conclusions. Franck concludes:

The controversy over same-sex marriage, and over the place of social science findings in debating the question, will doubtless continue. But Regnerus’s contribution has complicated a set of breezy assumptions too widely held: that children raised in these new family structures suffer no disadvantages whatsoever, and that stable, long-term same-sex-parent families can even be found in significant numbers. In so doing, Regnerus has moved our national conversation on the family forward, in a positive direction, with greater awareness of what is at stake in the public policy choices we make.

Yet response to Regnerus’s study has been extremely vitriolic, characterizing it as “anti-gay.” More thoughtful reactions have come from people like Robert Oscar Lopez, who argued that it finally collected the data that tells his story of growing up with two moms. Now Lopez, himself a bisexual, urges caution on the question of marriage: “mind the consequences of redefining marriage. It would be a permanent change, one like Roe v. Wade. We cannot reverse it if we find that it isn’t going well.”

Marriage is the fundamental institution of civil society. Anyone reflecting on questions about it should give serious consideration to the six articles linked in this post.