Soon the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit will hear argument in two cases brought by gay and lesbian couples challenging restrictive marriage laws in Oklahoma and Utah. As the top law enforcement officers in Massachusetts and Washington, two states with marriage equality, we think it is useful to consider our states’ experiences.
Nationwide, the legal landscape is changing dramatically. May marks the 10th year since Massachusetts became the first state to embrace same-sex marriage. In 2012, Washington became one of the first to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote.
Today, marriage equality is the law in 17 states and the District of Columbia.
It’s been a remarkable trajectory over a single decade, and the institution of marriage remains strong. In fact, our experience, and the experience of other marriage equality states, demonstrates that the institution is strengthened by extending marriage rights, protections and responsibilities to all families.
We both heard predictions of legal and social chaos if marriage equality became law. Many feared the unknown consequences of this "social experiment." Some even speculated that fewer people would marry and more couples would divorce should the freedom to marry be extended to all. None of these dire predictions occurred in any of the marriage equality states.
Of course, any social scientist would reject such a simplistic cause-effect claim. A multitude of factors affect marriage and divorce rates—including economic conditions and the rising average age of first marriages. But let’s assume, for the sake of argument, that same-sex marriage could single-handedly impact marriage and divorce rates.
The existing data simply does not support the position that same sex marriage erodes the institution of marriage.
For example, examine the federal statistics on divorce rates. As of 2011, according to the Center for Disease Control, six of the seven jurisdictions that approved marriage equality had divorce rates at or below the national average. Four of the 10 lowest divorce rates in the country came from states with marriage equality. Iowa and Massachusetts had the lowest and third-lowest divorce rates in the country. By contrast, many states that prohibit same-sex marriage had high divorce rates in 2011.
Statistics aside, we believe marriage equality has re-invigorated the institution by highlighting the core values of love and commitment that form the foundation of all marriages.
There are good people on both sides of the debate concerning same-sex marriages, but none of the justifications for denying marriage equality withstand scrutiny.
One century ago, interracial marriage was called "repugnant and abhorrent" and "subversive to social peace." The bans were justified based on what was considered best for children. Unfortunately, those views are being revived in the current marriage debate.
Overturning laws banning interracial marriage was a critical piece of the civil rights movement.
The same is true for gays and lesbians today. Excluding loving, same-sex couples from marriage does not strengthen families or protect children. Instead, it simply allows discrimination against gays and lesbians to persist.
We are not surprised that courts asked to review the exclusion of gay couples from marriage are finding in favor of marriage equality. The arguments for exclusion wilt under careful legal analysis.
What has held strong is the power of the institution itself—even in the face of change.
Marriage is reinforced by the thousands of couples—both gay and straight—who seek to publicly proclaim what brought them together in the first place: their love.
Martha Coakley is the attorney general of Massachusetts and Bob Ferguson is the attorney general of Washington.
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