In the national debate about the purpose and meaning of marriage, a clear conflict of visions is emerging between those who see marriage as a child-centric institution and others who view marriage as a "consent-based" matter between adults.

In the national debate about the purpose and meaning of marriage, a clear conflict of visions is emerging.

Many see marriage as a child-centric institution, one that encourages parents to subordinate their interests to the needs of their children. Others view marriage as a “consent-based” matter, primarily about satisfying the emotional interests of adults.

Utah has become a central participant in this debate. On Monday, the state defended its conception that marriage is a union of one man and one woman. In its brief before the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, the state makes an important contribution in legal argumentation and through rigorous evidence to support the child-centric view that marriage requires a man and a woman.

It states: “Society has an existential need to secure a sufficient social and economic base to care for the elderly; to fund social welfare programs; and to foster the hope, self-sacrifice and civic virtue that come only from a culture that treasures children as its greatest asset.”

Same-sex marriage came to Utah suddenly, on Dec. 20, 2013, and lasted for 17 days until halted by the U.S. Supreme Court. The ruling of a single federal district court judge is now before an appeals court panel.

As a legal matter, there are many reasons why the district court’s decision imposing same-sex marriage should be reversed. The state covers this ground in the first two sections of its brief. First, the district court ignored a Supreme Court decision, in 1972, that affirmed a state’s right to define marriage as a union of a man and a woman. Second, even if that ruling were no longer valid, the state shows how far of a stretch it is to insist that the U.S. Constitution requires every state to offer same-sex marriage.

But the brief makes a vital contribution in the third section of its argument: about how the district court failed to adequately respect Utah’s reasons, based on common sense and sound social science, for retaining the man-woman definition of marriage.

Among the themes identified by the state:

Utah’s marriage definition furthers a child-centric marriage culture. This culture encourages parents to put the needs of their children above their own.

Utah’s marriage laws advance the state’s interest in children being raised by biological mothers and fathers, or at least by a married mother and father, in a stable home. “A wealth of social-science data teach that children do best emotionally, socially, intellectually and even economically when reared in an intact home by both biological parents,” the state argues. The argument reviews this research, and shows how it benefits children by harnessing the biological connections between parents and children, and providing the benefits of “gender complementarity” in parenting.

Utah’s approach to marriage helps ensure adequate reproduction of children by parents who are willing and able to provide a high-quality home environment.

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Utah strikes an appropriate conciliatory tone in emphasizing, from the very first paragraph of the brief, that the state respects and values citizens “who have formed intimate, committed relationships with someone of the same sex” and emphasized that those citizens and their children are “equal before the law and fully entitled to order their private lives in the manner they have chosen.”

But it is also unapologetic on the long-term interest of Utah’s children, now and in future generations. As the marriage debate turns to whether states are permitted to democratically define their laws governing marriage and domestic relations, Utah has made an important contribution to the national debate.