The marriage debate is about more than romance between adults. Society’s interest in the upbringing of children and marriage’s unique ability to serve that interest explains the government’s involvement in the institution, argues Helen Alvare, a law professor at George Mason University and a leading expert on marriage and family law, in an amicus brief filed with the Supreme Court:

This Court has repeatedly described states’ interests in marriage[:]…(1) stable commitment between intimate, opposite-sex pairs of adults, (2) the procreation and the rearing of children, and thereby, (3) the formation of a decentralized, democratic society.

Tracing the consequences of the past half-century’s “retreat from marriage” and its disparate effects on America’s poor, Alvare argues that redefining marriage to exclude sexual complementarity would only further weaken the marriage culture among the poor, who already marry less, divorce more, experience lower marital quality, and have far more nonmarital births than those in the middle and upper classes.

The recognition of marital benefits to adults has never been separated from the responsibility to children. However, the proponents of redefining marriage seek to artificially separate these two integral aspects of marriage. Removing sexual complementarity as an essential aspect of our understanding of marriage is fundamentally at odds with America’s prior history of judicial, legislative, and societal treatment of marriage.

Alvare explains what marriage, redefined, would become:

As redefined by Plaintiffs, marriage would merely become a reparation, a symbolic capstone, and a personal reward, not a gateway to adult responsibilities, including childbearing, childrearing, and the inculcating of civic virtues in the next generation for the benefit of the larger society.

Alvare argues that the consequences of an “adult-centered understanding of marriage” have disproportionally harmed the most disadvantaged, leading to marriage being treated as a “luxury good” beyond the reach of the less privileged. The children of less-privileged groups are less likely to live with both parents, more likely to be pregnant out of wedlock, and are less likely to obtain higher education or employment. Family structure changes, such as increasing numbers of single-parent households and cohabitation, explain 41 percent of the increase in income inequality between 1976 and 2000, according to a study by Penn State sociologist Molly Martin.

Increases in child poverty and pregnancies out of wedlock are partly the result of changing perceptions of sex, procreation, and marriage, as other ways of living became more culturally acceptable and legally beneficial. Marital norms shape the minds and habits of society, as Alvare explains:

A strong prescription in favor of marriage as the gateway to adult responsibilities and to caring for the next generation would therefore again likely influence behavior in favor of bearing and rearing children by stably lined, biological parents, ready and able to prepare children for responsible citizenship.

Reframing marriage as a governmental and societal stamp of approval on romantic attachments removes the state’s interest in marriage—childbearing and childrearing—and turns the institution into a meaningless recognition of commitment. Rather than dictating societal norms, the Court should allow citizens and their elected officials to decide marriage policy for themselves.

Kayla Griesemer is currently a member of the Young Leaders Program at The Heritage Foundation. For more information on interning at Heritage, please click here.