Marriage Equality: Where Do Marriage Promotion Policies Fit?

The debate over marriage equality for lesbians and gay men is once again taking shape to be a hot item in this election year. A number of events have put the issue in the spotlight. The Washington state legislature passed a bill allowing same-sex marriage, the legislature in Maryland followed suit, and Chris Christie vetoed a same-sex marriage bill in New Jersey. While voters in Maine will consider whether to legalize same-sex marriage, those in North Carolina and Minnesota will consider referendums this year on constitutional amendments to ban it. Soon, there will be a decision in the federal appeals court hearing on whether to uphold a lower court’s decision that a section of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) law banning federal recognition of same-sex marriage is unconstitutional.

With the current patchwork of state laws—a few legalizing marriage for lesbians and gay men and a good number with constitutional bans—the climate is ripe to strike down DOMA. The Obama administration has taken a step in the right direction, announcing that the Justice Department would no longer support the Defense of Marriage Act in court. And more Americans are now likely to view the issue of marriage as one of equal rights (see the research of sociologists Robert Andersen and Tina Fetner for an explanation of the increasing tolerance of homosexuality in North America). Thus, contests over marriage equality have lost some of their heat, even as the issue continues to generate passion for one-man and one-woman marriage among socially conservative voters.

While marriage equality remains a topic of public debate, and marriage is illegal for lesbians and gay men in most states, more issues are at stake than generally acknowledged in the discussion. In fact, a number of recent laws and policies pose an additional challenge to end the types of discrimination based on legal marriage. These laws specify terms for a new direction in public policy to promote heterosexual marriage as a route out of poverty and off welfare.

In 1996, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA, also known as welfare reform) set the stage for this new policy direction by including provisions to promote heterosexual marriage. Unlike DOMA, which explicitly discriminates against lesbians and gay men by defining marriage to mean “only a legal union between one man and one woman as husband and wife,” marriage promotion policies make more universal claims about the superiority of marriage with an assumption of its fundamental heterosexuality. For example, according to PRWORA:

(1) Marriage is the foundation of a successful society. (2) Marriage is an essential institution of a successful society which promotes the interests of children. (3) Promotion of responsible fatherhood and motherhood is integral to successful child rearing and the well-being of children.

The argument favoring heterosexual marriage and parenting as key elements of a successful society suggests the need to prioritize the institution in public policies by offering financial and social benefits to those who are married and to discourage parenting outside marriage. This philosophy fuels the growth of marriage promotion policies as a way to lift poor women out of poverty.

Marriage promotion policies have offered a variety of services, including “marriage education”—an approach to preventing marital problems based on the idea that couples can learn how to build and maintain successful marriages, public media campaigns to signal the importance of marriage to healthy families, and marriage incentives for poor couples. Many of these programs receive federal funds. For example, the 2005 welfare legislation set aside $500 million for marriage promotion programs. In addition, individual states, such as Oklahoma, have used portions of their welfare grants to fund statewide marriage initiatives.

In my book One Marriage under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America, I offer analysis of the social consequences of marriage promotion policies. Using the marriage initiative in Oklahoma as a case study, I uncover the kinds of discrimination that take place in state efforts to promote and strengthen heterosexual marriage. For example, the initiative spends welfare money to offer free marriage education workshops to the general public populated by couples who are not poor. These workshops thus redistribute welfare money away from poor women with children who are struggling to make ends meet. Furthermore, such workshops mirror the PRWORA law in teaching about marriage as fundamentally heterosexual.

Discussion of marriage equality in America must begin to tackle these broader laws and policies that often fall under the radar. It is fundamentally unjust to bar lesbians and gay men from marrying, and it is also fundamentally unjust to use public funds for initiatives motivated by the premise that marriage can be a solution to poverty for poor women who are judged as having made “bad” sexual choices. While poor and non-poor couples alike, as well as lesbian and gay couples, may benefit from voluntary workshops that teach skills for better communication and ways to de-escalate arguments, I hope that my book will contribute to discussions of the problems with policies that discriminate against heterosexual and non-heterosexual couples based on the assumed superiority of “one marriage.”

Melanie Heath is Assistant Professor of Sociology at McMaster University, Ontario, and the author of One Marriage under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America (available now).

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