Civil?

I’ve seen this claim several times, as part of an apologetic for same-sex marriage.

Marriage is a civil ceremony. Because it is a civil ceremony, it is a civil right.

I don’t get it. The hidden premise, “All civil ceremonies are civil rights,” is by no means credible.

Or perhaps there is another hidden premise here. “What is a civil right for one person, must be a civil right for all people.” Again, this seems very doubtful.

Consider presidential inauguration. Inauguration is a civil ceremony. It is not, however, a civil right. Or, if we want to call it a civil right, we need to recognize that it fails the second hidden premise. First, not all people are constitutionally qualified to be elected president. Second, only a very few people – one person at a time, and that only once every four years – is elected president and thus considered inaugurable.

Another strategy would be to admit the initial claim, with these caveats in place. We might say,

Marriage is a civil ceremony that united a man and a woman. Any man has the civil right to marry any woman. Any other kind of union might qualify as a union, but it need not qualify as a marriage.

Our society puts qualifications even on this kind of formulation. Some kinds of relationship are out of bounds. Still, our liberal understanding of marriage allows that any unmarried man of marriageable age may marry any unmarried woman of marriageable age, if such requirements as non-consanguinity are met.

Some might say that what is being claimed in this (original) assertion is not a right to marry (since men already have the right to marry women), but a right to redefine marriage itself, making it no longer the union of a man and woman, but any person and any other person. I wouldn’t be surprised if some are making this redefinition claim. The weakness of this defense is that the definition of marriage has long been malleable. Of late, it has been pushed so far in the direction of romantic love that it has lost many of its earlier (and, I believe, important features). If the sole purpose of marriage has become the union of two people who feel romantic love toward each other, or who are sexually attracted to each other, then defenders of same-sex marriage make sense when they wonder why they can’t make this little tiny change, a change, as I’ve observed, already in line with the direction the culture is going?

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