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Freedom for everyone

Conor Durkin | Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The past few weeks have been extremely eventful with respect to the issue of gay marriage. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio came out with a public statement announcing his support for marriage equality, making him the first Republican senator to do so. The Supreme Court heard arguments regarding California’s Proposition 8 (which prohibits gay marriage in the state) and the Defense of Marriage Act.

Those who know me well know I have pretty strong opinions on most public policy issues. For as long as I have cared about politics, I have been a Republican.  But, that doesn’t mean I oppose gay marriage. It’s precisely why I support it.

I am a firm believer in individualism.  I believe in the free market because I think individuals are better economic decision-makers than central planners. I believe in civil liberties because I don’t trust the government to decide how I should think, which God I should worship, or what I should be allowed to say. I oppose efforts like Mayor Bloomberg’s ban on large sugary drinks because I think people should be able to make their own decisions on what to eat and drink. And I support marriage equality because I don’t think the government should decide whether two consenting adults are or aren’t allowed to marry.

Most conservative objections to marriage equality focus on the inherently religious nature of “marriage.”  I can understand this objection, but I believe it highlights a fundamental misunderstanding. Yes, the sacrament of matrimony is a fundamentally religious ceremony, but that’s not what we’re talking about when we discuss gay marriage. We are talking about the civil institution of marriage that exists alongside the religious institution. When a straight couple is married, they don’t just participate in the sacrament of matrimony, but they also enter into a civil union recognized by the government. There is nothing inherently religious about this pact; it’s a civil contract. When our government prohibits same-sex couples from entering into this civil contract, they are making an implicit judgment about the validity of their union as opposed to those unions of straight couples.

That’s not a role they should have. I don’t want a government to dictate morality. This is partially because I believe in a separation of church and state, and a country that holds religious freedom to be a central value should not create law restricting others’ freedoms based upon one’s religious view of God’s will. Yet more fundamentally, having government dictate morality to us diminishes our capacity as individuals to understand for ourselves what morality is. Morality comes from God, not the government, and in a liberal democracy our civil institutions should permit the greatest possible degree of freedom to the individual in determining the moral course of action.

How do we do this? To some, the right course of action is to allow ‘civil unions’ for same-sex partners, to give couples equal status under the law.  I used to be in that camp. But if the state makes gay couples equal to straight couples in every capacity save one  –  the right to actually refer to the union as a marriage  – then what the state has implicitly done is stated the gay union is somehow less valid than the straight union. Otherwise, there is no reason for the state to use a different word. The proper course is far simpler: To permit same-sex couples to participate in the civil institution of marriage.

Primarily, I believe the single best argument for the marriage equality case is one of freedom. I don’t presume to fully understand God nor do I believe it appropriate for me to judge whether someone’s union is in accordance with God’s will. Neither should our government. We live in a liberal democracy, and a fundamental respect for individual liberty means we must protect the rights of individuals to decide what constitutes a marriage. Former Vice President Dick Cheney – who, incidentally, publicly favored marriage equality before President Obama did – perhaps said it best: “Freedom means freedom for everyone.”

Conor Durkin is a junior studying economics and political science. He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.