The debate surrounding the definition of marriage and how it pertains to the gay rights movement has been steadily growing for years. The latest volley reported by Fox News, Rep. Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis), an openly gay lawmaker, has sponsored legislation that would allow for gay partners of Federal employees to have access to the same benefits as married spouses, to include survivor annuities, health insurance, and travel & relocation benefits to name a few. President Obama has expressed his support for this measure, with the Senate Homeland Security and Gov't Affairs Committee voting on Dec. 16th to forward the bill for full vote.
Addressing this issue, we need to break the argument into two distinct, but related, parts: The definition of marriage and the assignment of benefits based on that definition.
First hurdle is the definition of marriage and how that pertains to government and legislation. We must understand that marriage is not a public, nor declared, institution; it is a religious one. Marriage has existed long before the creation of the US Government and therefore we have to look at how a such an institution would be included in government recourse.
That said, most all religions in the world define marriage with different variations among all of them. Some allow for the taking of more than one wife, some dictate that the union should outlast life, etc. For the Judeo-Christian ideal, marriage is defined as the union between a man and woman with a life long commitment as a covenant before God.
Rednex Note: The actual definition is much more involved than listed above. Rather than listing all scripture, I condensed for the sake of length of article.
So with this definition, what bearing does it have on the current national debates. The answer is very simple, it has no bearing what so ever. I know that answer will surprise many, so let me explain. As stated above, marriage is religious institution, not one of the state. As the United States was built on Judeo-Christian values, it's very easy to see how the ideals could percolate up thru our governing system and be seen as state institutions, but to believe so would be inaccurate. In fact, the First amendment provides for a separation of Church and State :
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances
1st Amendment, Bill of Rights
Now, the purpose of this amendment is provide a separation of church and state, not a exclusion of religion and state. Meaning, the intent of this amendment was to prevent the government from the forcing of one religious ideal (national religion) onto the citizens, but it doesn't provide for a freedom FROM religion, but that's subject for another rant. In the matter of marriage, for the Federal government to define marriage, it would be in direct contradiction to the First amendment based on it being a religious institution. Likewise, Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District vs Grumet, upheld that the First Amendment upheld a restriction on the state level to do the same. Thusly, based on the above, the Government (Fed or State) has no power to define the act of marriage or it's conditions.
Now comes the second part of the argument, while the Government does not have the power to define, they DO have to power to regulate benefits based on the institution, such as the awarding of property after death, parental transfer rights, etc. However, no where in the Constitution is Congress granted the power to determine such awards. If not explicitly granted in the Constitution, then the 10th amendment comes into play which states:
The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.
10th Amendment, Bill of Rights
The 10th amendment allows two very important fundamentals within our Federal structure: A check and balance against the power of an overbearing government by placing power in the hands of the States and the allowance for the act of social experimentation within the states.
The idea of state's being the incubators for social experimentation was proposed by Ben Franklin and in my belief, one of the most far reaching, future insights by our founding fathers. By preserving the power to the states, we allow for a "test" mechanism that allows for the state to determine and set policy without affecting the citizenship of the nation as a whole. As an example of action, look to the differences between California and Texas in terms of electrical policy. While Texas is moving towards a system of deregulation and less state control, California moved in the direction of strict regulation, price setting, and control. As a result, we have seen California suffer in the terms of it's policy decisions, while electricity has become cheaper and more accessible within Texas. This has lead to other states starting to follow the Texas model, providing for a better policy direction for the nation as a whole.
The same type of social experimentation should be performed in the arena of same sex partner benefits. Let the states most passionate about it (California, New England States, etc) enact the policies allowing for the inclusion of same sex partners. If the idea proves beneficial, their populations will grow, their economies flourish, and other states will follow suit for fear of losing constituents. Likewise, should the policies fail, then only the states participating will be hurt, leaving others virtually unaffected. In the end, it will be the people that decide and set the direction, not a subset within governmental control
As for the matter of Federal benefits, it's my personal belief that the taxpayer should not be responsible for paying for benefits for anyone other than the person hired, regardless of straight, married, single, gay. The Fed hired a person, not that person's wife, kids, or partner. If a federal employee wishes to have their family covered under the same benefits, then they should be required to pay the differential for inclusion. Using this method, the matter of relationship would hold no consequence. As a federal employee, I could cover my neighbor under my benefits during hard times, should I wish to fund the effort. In this case, sexuality or the acceptance of martial status, becomes moot, saves the taxpayers money, and puts all on a level playing field. Now many would state that they would be unable, or unwilling, to pay this offset, but this is a much bigger discussion. Should we move this direction, the total expenditure of the fed would come down, so should taxes. In addition, we also restart the health care debate and impacts on citizens, best saved for another time. If unwilling to pay the differential, then the employee should find employment within an enterprise that provides more in line with their needs, rather than relying on the taxpayer to front that cost.
In summary, the idea of marriage belongs where it first evolved, within the religious context. As such, it's definition has no place, or relevance, within governmental debate. As for the assignment of benefits, that is a matter left to the states for decision, since, constitutionally, the Fed has no power to interject itself. Lastly, you will notice I made no mention of private enterprise here. Private enterprise should be left to do what ever it feels necessary to attract and maintain the people required for it to succeed. Should they wish to provide, or deny, benefits to same sex couples, they have only to answer to their bottom line and personnel turnover rates. Should they reside in a state that wishes to legislate such measure, then it would be up to the company to decide to comply or move to a state in line with their policy belief, leading to the free market argument made above. Again, the proposal of social experimentation, free market, and competition would be the decider of policy, not the moral stance of government stepping outside it's limitations.