OPINION | Defining the real purpose of marriage

by Joseph Backholm

This month, the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on the Constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act as well as California’s Proposition 8, which defined marriage as a relationship between a man and a woman in their state constitution.

This means that even if you aren’t in one of the states that have been debating marriage in their legislature this year, you will be part of additional conversations about marriage.

As we begin the long process of reeducating the culture on why the definition of marriage matters, we’ll have to first make that case regarding the purpose of marriage.  Is the purpose of marriage to affirm the love and commitment two people claim to share, or is it more than that?

The following is a description of the purpose of marriage that was written by Joseph Story, who was an associate justice of the U.S. Supreme Court when his article on “Natural Law” appeared in the Encyclopedia Americana in 1836.

Marriage is an institution which may properly be deemed to arise from the law of nature. It promotes the private comfort of both parties, and especially of the female sex. It tends to the procreation of the greatest number of healthy citizens, and to their property maintenance and education.

It secures the peace of society, by cutting off a great source of contention, by assigning to one man the exclusive right to one woman.  It promotes the cause of sound morals, by cultivating domestic affections and virtues.  It distributes the whole of society into families, and creates a permanent union of interests, and a mutual guardianship of the same.

It binds children by indissoluble ties, and adds new securities to the good order of society, by connecting the happiness of the whole family with the good behavior of all.  It furnishes additional motives for honest industry and economy in private life, and for a deeper love of the country of our birth.

When we first answer the questions about why marriage exists at all, the follow-up question about how it should be defined becomes much easier to answer.

If the purpose of marriage is simply to recognize the emotional connections of adults and provide a bundle of legal conveniences, marriage that involves relatives, multiple spouses, or people of the same gender makes some sense.

If we agree with Justice Story that marriage has a more specific purpose then a more specific definition will follow.

Hopefully Justice Story’s description of marriage helps you and your family develop an appreciation for what marriage, properly understood, accomplishes.  And hopefully, at the end of this month, we will discover that Justice Story’s clarity on this issue still exists on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Joseph Backholm is the director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington.


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