Friday, January 6, 2012

Marriage Equality vs. Polygamy

Rick Santorum’s boilerplate argument against marriage equality is that if it’s okay for a man to marry another man, why stop there?

A college-age audience member at a town hall meeting in Concord asked Santorum “how you justify your belief based on these morals you have about all men being created equal when two men who want to marry the person that they love —”

Santorum cut her off and said “What about three men?”

“It’s important that if we’re going to have a discussion based on rational thought, that we employ reason. Reason says that if you think it’s ok for two, you have to differentiate with me why it’s not OK for three. Let’s just have a discussion about what that means. If she reflects the values that marriage can be for anybody or any group of people, as many as is necessary, any two people or any three or four, marriage really means whatever you want it to mean.”

Setting aside for the moment Mr. Santorum’s oft-noted obsession with other people’s sex lives, including his belief that the government has the right to control what goes on between two consenting adults in the privacy of their home, it seems that he is either forgetting or ignoring the fact that marriage is basically a legal contract and therefore it can be written with limitations and stipulations.

I’m not a lawyer, but I don’t think it takes someone with a law degree to understand that the state can set standards for contracts. For instance, you can’t write a legally binding contract to commit an illegal act, such as to hire someone to kill someone else. And I’m pretty sure that the state can limit a contract to people of a certain age and with ability to understand and sign the contract. That would eliminate the possibility that someone could marry their dog since a dog can neither understand the terms of the contract nor sign it. (For one thing, you need an opposable thumb to hold the pen.) The state can also set limits on the number of parties bound by the contract, such as two. Therefore if the state wants to prevent polygamy, it’s perfectly within its rights to do so based on that limit. (That’s not to say that polygamy is necessarily a bad thing. I know several people who are in polyamorous relationships without bringing the universe to an end, and besides, it’s sanctioned by the Bible. Look it up.)

What the state should not be able to do is limit a contract based solely on a person’s innate qualities such as sexual orientation or race. As long as both parties meet all the other qualifications of the contract — age, sentience, and willingness to participate without coercion or sanction — then the state should stay the hell out of who gets married to whom. So when Rick Santorum tells us that marriage equality would lead to the slippery slope of polygamy and other thrilling sexual exploits, it’s a red herring. As a lawyer, he should know better.


It also calls into question how Mr. Santorum can call himself the “true conservative” in the race. He seems perfectly content to have the state dictate family values as long as he and the Catholic church get to define what those values are: Mr. & Mrs. Whitebread living happily in their Pleasant Valley ranch with the kids who play Little League and go to vacation bible school, gee wilikers. (True to sycophantic form, David Brooks thinks that’s a “new social agenda.”) But it sounds an awful lot like the apocalyptic accusations that right-wingers make about the liberal “nanny-state”: telling people what light bulbs to use, wear your seat belt, and recycle. The only difference seems to be that the Baby Jesus is on his side and Al Gore is fat.