17 June 2011

Same-Sex Marriage = Big Government?

In New York State, every commitment by a Republican state senator to support legislation legalizing same-sex marriage is treated in the news media as if the bill itself had passed. Proponents of the legislation have lobbied and advertised aggressively this year. Even the Troy newspaper I work for, which doesn't usually run a lot of issue-advocacy advertising, ran a full-page last week urging readers to urge the bill on Sen. McDonald, who earlier this week announced his support for it. The bill is now at the brink of approval, based on public commitments, while opponents continue to argue against it. One such argument was made in this morning's Albany Times Union by Peter Sprigg, a former Clifton Park pastor who know flacks for the Family Research Council. Sprigg blames the gradual Republican capitulation on this issue on a libertarian streak within the party. To stem the tide, he attempts to argue against the bill on libertarian grounds.

Sprigg contends that libertarians misunderstand gay marriage as a privacy and individual-rights issue. Since marriage is a public institution, he argues, gay marriage can't be defended on privacy grounds. Instead of driving government from their bedrooms, as was the case when courts condemned anti-sodomy laws, legislation authorizing same-sex marriage actually invites government into homosexual bedrooms, Sprigg claims. Marriage isn't an issue of individual rights, he goes on, because the marriage rights of every American, not just homosexuals, are limited by law. But he goes on to state that laws setting minimum ages for marriage or forbidding incest, bigamy or polygamy "are not restrictions upon the right to marry; they are part of the definition of marriage." Practically speaking, that's true; the legal parameters of marriage rights are defined by negative legislation. It'd be an error, however, to argue that these laws derive from a pre-existing definition of marriage, as Sprigg may mean to imply. It's also unclear why these limitations can't be seen as infringements on individual rights. Sprigg can still defend the limitations, but to say that marriage isn't an individual-rights issue is either sophistry or else it reflects some confusion about what "individual rights" mean.

Inevitably, Sprigg retreats to the favored First Amendment argument against same-sex marriage. "Freedom of conscience and religious liberty would be threatened," he writes, "In the wake of same-sex marriage, we have already seen religious nonprofits being told to compromise their principles or go out of business." As I see it, the principles of religious homophobes are compromised only when government forces them to become homosexuals; otherwise, they should be obliged not to discriminate against homosexuals in either services or hiring practices. The right to discriminate in hiring based on religious scruples is no more sacred than the right to refuse service to customers based on their race or ethnicity. If freedom of association is the issue, marriage -- an association by definition -- should trump the negative liberty of refusal to associate upheld by bigots throughout American history.

Sprigg saves his masterstroke for last, when he contends that that greater liberty for homosexuals will lead to bigger government than ever, and specifically a bigger and more abhorrent welfare state:

The breakdown of the traditional family leads inevitably to expansion of government. The best bulwark against a large centralized government is the existence of mediating social institutions which allow society to govern itself. Chief among these is the natural family, consisting of husband, wife and their own children. People living in this family structure are the least likely to become burdens upon society through dependency on government social programs or through crime and incarceration.

Libertarians are unlikely to be swayed by this attempted reasoning. They may agree that strong families are a bulwark against government, but few will agree that only the "natural family" can play this role. Nor are they likely to accept on faith Sprigg's unproven premise about children of same-sex couples. Sprigg's final sentence above is as much an argument against single-parent families as it is against same-sex families, and even if libertarians believed that "natural families" are the least dependent on government or the least likely to commit crimes, I doubt that would justify legislation compelling parents to marry for them.

Sprigg deserves some credit for making his argument in a civil way -- by which I mean that the former pastor never invokes the authority of God or any of his alleged revelations to support his arguments. Instead, he contends that same-sex marriage will disrupt society and increase individual dependence on government regardless of whether God decides to throw more tornadoes at us. Nevertheless, there's an almost palpable desperation between the lines of his piece, a reaching for and twisting of premises and assumptions to trick libertarians away from their defining commitment to liberty. Sprigg makes his stand in the last ditch, or the last but one if New York homophobes appeal to the people to overrule their legislators. In a place like New York, however, it's more likely that people like Sprigg will acquiesce, however grudgingly, and leave the field to the Fred Phelpses of our state. By comparison to what people like that will say, Sprigg's virtually counts as an honorable parting shot.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And just what facts does the reverend present to uphold his arguments regarding marital values=size of government? Or of any of his other statements for that matter? His arguments are based solely on his (and others) repulsion by homosexuality, not on any real research. The man is a bigot and deserves the same amount of attention or credence merited by any other bigot: NONE.