Parental Rights and Access to Marriage for Same-Sex Couples

Recently there’s been a lot in the news about access to marriage for same-sex couples.   There’s a lot going on out there.

In the upper-right hand corner of our country, a block of states recognized actual marriage is emerging.   In the center of our country, the Iowa Supreme Court ruled unanimously (surely no one expected it to be unanimous) that access to marriage could not be constitutionally denied.  And on the left coast, people are waiting on a decision of the California Supreme Court on Proposition 8 (which amended the CA Constitution to bar recognition of marriages between those of the same sex) while Washington moves forward with an “all but marriage” version of domestic partnerships.

I’ve written before about how being a parent has gotten entangled with being married.  Recently I’ve been following invocation of  parental rights as a basis for retaining restricted access to marriage.  

Particularly in the US,  many people respond positively to the invocation of rights in general and parental rights in particular.   We may not be exactly clear about what the exact content of parental rights includes, but they are nevertheless a well established feature of our legal and broader culture.   That recognition makes invocation of parental rights a potentially powerful rhetorical move.

A significant strand of the anti-marriage campaign centers on parental rights.   The argument goes like this:   Parents have a right to raise their children as they see fit–that’s one of the core elements of parental rights.  The state cannot tell you what to teach your kids, nor can it interfere with your teaching.   Thus, parents have a right to teach their kids that marriage for lesbians and gay men is wrong.   Recognition of marriage for same-sex couples, and the resulting inclusion of married same-sex couples,   undermines a parents ability to teach his/her own child about right and wrong. This point has been raised repeatedly in the campaigns against marriage access in California and now in New England and it is worth considering.

Speaking for myself, I think I agree that it is my right (and more than that, my obligation) as a parent to teach my children about right and wrong.   I also generally agree that the state cannot tell me what to teach my kids about morality.

It’s the next step in the argument I disagree with:  I don’t think I have any particular right to have the state affirm or reinforce my particular teachings.  Sometimes I may have to teach my kids that the majority view (or the law, for that matter) is wrong.    So, for example, the law may be that we have no obligation to help a stranger, but I may nonetheless choose to teach my children that we do have such an obligation and that the law that says otherwise is wrong.

Of course, I may not successfully impart my moral teachings to my children.   I suspect it is this prospect–that children may come to accept same-sex couples–that most animates the parental rights argument against access to marriage for same-sex couples.     But that’s a risk of life in a pluralistic society.  Our children may find other people’s arguments more persuasive than our own or may find themselves more strongly drawn to the beliefs of other people.

Parental rights may give us the right to teach our children, but they don’t  give us the right to insist that our children will, in the end, agree with us.

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