Government and Marriage: An Increasingly Toxic Mix

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This month, two women grace the cover of Texas Monthly, “The National Magazine of Texas.” Both are young, conservatively dressed, and wear worried half-smiles. One is pregnant; the other holds a toddler, his face buried in her shoulder.  Legos litter the ground beneath their feet. The headline: “Modern Family.”

“Cleo and Nicole are a devoted couple,” the cover text declares. “They dote on their son. They have a baby girl on the way. So why won’t Texas let them get married?”

Texas, of course, has a constitutional ban on gay marriage. But in a few months, that might not make much of a difference. In June, as USA Today recently put it, the United States Supreme Court “will resolve the national debate over same-sex marriage once and for all.”

That’s a pretty big mandate for nine unelected, intelligent-yet-flawed human beings—some of them, like Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, even admit to doing things like getting drunk before the State of the Union address—but we’ll leave that aside for now. High court ruling or no high court ruling, the issue of gay marriage seems far from settled in the Lone Star State.

Last week, in what resembled a 21st-century episode of “The Keystone Cops,” Travis County, that lovable, progressive island deep in the heart of Texas, issued the state’s very first same-sex marriage license. This was thanks to a state District Court order that defied the state’s ban and, to be frank, pretty much came out of nowhere. It was all very exciting, at least to some, until just a few hours later, when the Texas Supreme Court issued an emergency order blocking gay marriage licenses.

But wait! There’s more. The Texas Supreme Court’s ruling, the Austin American-Statesman reported, “did not appear to invalidate the marriage of Sarah Goodfriend and Suzanne Bryant, who were allowed to marry based on the one-time court order because one of the women has cancer.” Ken Paxton, the state’s attorney general, disagreed, noting that the marriage was illegal because it was, well, against the law.

So, are Ms. Goodfriend and Ms. Bryant married? Are they not? Are they married in their hearts but not under the law? Are they married in California but not in Nebraska? Are they married on Pluto—which, sadly, has been delegitimized as an actual “planet,” aptly illustrating the ever-changing, fickle, and capricious nature of legal “classifications”—but not on Mars? Seriously, who knows?

What I do know is that placing this issue in the hands of government functionaries is highly problematic. Let’s take a step back and think about the institution of marriage in the United States. When I got married many moons ago—it was the giddy dawn of the new millennium, when dot-com bubble companies would hand-deliver a massive air conditioner to your apartment in 15 minutes, then surprise you with a box of doughnuts or a free Honda Civic on the side—I remember finding it a bit odd that I first had to get the approval of Ye Olde County Clerk, whose office resembled a giant 1970s brutalist prison/post office. This was nothing personal against Ye Olde County Clerk. It was, however, very much against the fact that the government seemed to think it owned a personal and religious ceremony. And guess what? At this point, it kind of does.

As America wrestles with the issue of gay marriage, it’s disappointing to see both left and right agitating for more government involvement, not less. On Tuesday, Texas activists attended a Faith and Family Day forum at the state capitol, where Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick used military analogies to urge Texans to fight their religious battles through the government. On the left, meanwhile, a growing coalition is supporting the concept of “marriage opportunity,” using government power and incentives to encourage all kinds of marriage—both gay and straight.

If you care about religious liberty, this mindset—the automatic pivot to the government on big issues and small—should strike you as dangerous. America’s knee-jerk “it’s always the government’s job” political culture has led, over decades, to the absurd position we find ourselves in now: Waiting with bated breath for nine unelected, intelligent-yet-flawed judges to decide for the entire nation what the ancient institution of marriage means, “once and for all.” Seriously? What could possibly go wrong?

Here’s a radical idea: How about the government does its best to butt out of marriage, increasing the liberty of both religious groups and gay couples? How about the government stops creating problems and fueling culture wars through forced collectivism and micromanaging everyone’s lives? It’s quite telling and ironic that Cleo and Nicole, the lesbian couple on the cover of Texas Monthly, cite today’s maze of strings-attached government benefits—like Social Security payouts that only transfer to legal spouses—as the main reason they need to get married.

Big Government, it turns out, can bite you in more ways than one. Just when you think you control it, it can take you by surprise. And when it comes to winning hearts and minds, winsome conviction is better than a bureaucratic cudgel. Those who seek greater government involvement in marriage—whether they’re Christians, secular progressives, or anyone in between—might want to keep this in mind.

Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin,Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

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