Defining Marriage for the 21st Century



Published March 25, 2013, issue of March 29, 2013.
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As the U.S. Supreme Court prepares to hear arguments in two cases about same-sex marriage, there’s been speculation about whether the experiences of the justices themselves will bear upon their momentous task of defining marriage in the 21st century. We certainly hope so. Those experiences should inform the deliberation, for they illustrate how society’s concept of marriage has evolved to become more realistic and more just.

Justice Clarence Thomas, for example, is a black man who married a white woman in a wedding that would have been illegal in his state only 20 years before it happened.

Virginia’s ban on miscegenation, dating back to the 17th century, was fueled by fear of its consequences — that is, generations of mixed-race children who would diminish the purity of the white race — and the belief that the highest purpose of marriage was procreation. (In this case, of course, a certain kind of procreation.) By marrying whom he did, Thomas helped consign that way of thinking to history’s dustbin.

Now the question before him and his eight colleagues is whether to further redefine marriage to include two men or two women. In this, Thomas faces a dilemma: The argument by opponents of same-sex marriage, made in briefs to the court, is rooted in the notion that marriage is meant for procreation and, since same-sex couples cannot naturally have children, such unions rob marriage of its essential purpose.

But Thomas’s 1987 marriage to Virginia Lamp Thomas has not produced any children; the couple are raising his son from a previous marriage and a great-nephew, with no offspring of their own. Is their marriage any less legitimate? We think not.

And what of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., who married when he and his wife were both 41 years old, did not have children of their own, but adopted a boy and a girl four years later?

Or Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who has written that she married her high school sweetheart with no intention of having children? (They later divorced.)

These marriages are no less welcome because husband and wife decided not to or could not naturally procreate.

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