Mon | Jan 18, 2021

Time longer than rope

Published:Thursday | July 2, 2015 | 12:00 AM

"'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean - neither more nor less'.

'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.'" [Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland]

For thousands of years, marriage has meant the union between one man and one woman. This definition was not assigned by Christianity or Judaism (for it antedates them), nor by any religion, for it is a human institution - of both production and reproduction. The institution of marriage is not the creation of law; it created law. Over millennia, couples who contract marriage gain certain rights - jointly and severally. Because of this, many people choose to marry rather than just to live together.

For thousands of years, homosexual men and women have chosen to live together in a sexual relationship, but without any of these rights.

In 2004, the United Kingdom passed the Civil Partnership Act, giving same-sex couples rights and responsibilities identical to civil marriage. Civil partners were entitled to the same property rights as married opposite-sex couples, the same exemption as married couples on inheritance tax, social security and pension benefits, and also the ability to get parental responsibility for a partner's children, as well as responsibility for reasonable maintenance of one's partner and their children, tenancy rights, full life insurance recognition, next of kin rights in hospitals, and so on. There is a formal process for dissolving same-sex partnerships akin to divorce.

But this was not enough for British gay-'rights' activists; they already had the same rights of married people, but what they really wanted was the right to use the word 'marriage' to describe what they have. The right to use the word 'marriage' - a word with thousands of years of credibility - would give same-sex unions (they thought) the aroma or normality. The use of the word 'marriage' became a political issue.


Definition of 'marriage'


Well, gay-'rights' activists got the right to use the word 'marriage'; time will tell whether they will get credibility, and whether gay marriage will ever be considered normal.

In 1972, the Supreme Court of the United States of America (SCOTUS), in Baker v Nelson, ruled that persons of the same gender were not entitled to contract a marriage because 'marriage' meant the union between one man and one woman. They upheld the millennia-old definition of the word 'marriage' and the institution of marriage.

Last week, SCOTUS reversed its 1972 ruling. A case was brought before it (called Obergefell v Hodges), based on Section One of the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, which says (inter alia) that no state shall "deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws".

Because the law makes no distinction between male persons and female persons - all are equal - then (the court ruled) any two persons of whatever sex or gender should be allowed to do whatever any male and female person can do, including contract a marriage.

Maybe SCOTUS will soon make a ruling declaring it a breach of the US Constitution that same-sex couples cannot have children. Clearly, science and biology are unfair and homophobic.


Will the ruling stand?


It was not a unanimous decision by the nine justices of SCOTUS, but the closest of split decisions (5-4). Clearly, there was room for other considered legal opinions and the decision was carried by a single vote. It has been met with controversy, and will be carefully examined and dissected in the years to come.

And in the years to come, new US presidents will come along, and new Supreme Court judges will be appointed, and Obergefell v Hodges will be overturned.

Men and women are equal before the law, but the fact is that they are not biologically equal. The scientific and biological differences between men and women do have legal ramifications, which this simplistic SCOTUS decision has not considered. Let us see how long it will take for this illogical decision to be overturned.

With some claiming that the centuries-old definition of marriage has now been changed, what is to prevent further development of the concept? A threesome - a ménage à trois,, if you will - of whatever composition, may become comfortable with their arrangement and wish to be married. Or four, or five. Why should they be denied the equal protection of the law? Surely five or six should be afforded the same rights as two?

I believe the word 'marriage' is in need of some protection. The definition of words of ancient usage should not be changed for political purposes. And words (like homophobia), invented for political purposes to vilify one's opponents, should be exposed for what they are: hate speech!

- Peter Espeut is a sociologist and Roman Catholic deacon. Email feedback to