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Dr. Robert George, professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, recently weighed in on the “Gay Marriage” debate. In his article, “What is Marriage?,” published in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, Dr. George argues that the common good of our society requires that we legally enshrine the traditional view of marriage and that the common good would be damaged by legally enshrining homosexual partnerships as marriage. In arguing from natural law through an analysis of the essential components and structure of marriage as understood through the light of reason, he makes an important contribution to the defense of traditional marriage. Because he relies exclusively on natural law, advocates of the revisionist view of marriage cannot dismiss the traditional view simply by classifying it as solely a religious position that has no place in public discourse. Further, by providing strong reasons in support of traditional marriage that are consistent with but do not appeal to articles of faith, Dr. George offers a means of explaining a position we may intuitively agree with, but have been unable to articulate or explain persuasively. While I certainly recommend reading the article in full (here), for those who might benefit from a summary, following is a distillation of Dr. George’s argument (I’ll be following up with a summary of his responses to common objections to his position in a second essay). 

The Basic Argument for the Legal Recognition of ONLY Traditional Marriage

Before making his argument, Dr. George clarifies that he is arguing from the basic assumption that marriage is a moral entity independent of the law; that is, marriage is not simply a legal construct. He argues this is a reasonable assumption because if marriage were only a legal construct, it would be whatever the law says it is. As such, the revisionist (those who advocate for the legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriage) would not be able to argue that the law is wrong in failing to recognize homosexual partnerships as marriage. In order to argue the law is wrong, the revisionist must appeal to some understanding of what marriage is. Additionally, if marriage were merely a legal construct, no one, including revisionists, could argue that it would be inappropriate to recognize as legal marriage any type of relationship, including polygynous, polyandrous, polyamorous, incestuous, bestial unions, and even unions between persons and inanimate objects. Unless the revisionist is prepared to open the door to the legal recognition of these relationships, he must accept that marriage is not merely a legal construct but a moral entity.

Before delving into Dr. George’s argument, which I present here in syllogistic form, the view of marriage Dr. George is analyzing should be kept in mind, because whittling down his argument to the bare essentials, as I have done here, somewhat obscures the comprehensiveness of the traditional view of marriage from which Dr. George is operating. Dr. George begins his article setting out what he refers to as the “conjugal view,” which holds that “marriage is the union of a man and women who make a permanent and exclusive commitment to each other of the type that is naturally (inherently) fulfilled by bearing and rearing children together” (a union “seal[ed] (consummate[d]) and renew[ed]…by conjugal acts–acts that constitute the behavioral part of the process of reproduction, thus uniting them as a reproductive unit). While this view holds that marriage is inherently valuable, its orientation toward the bearing and raising of children gives marriage a “distinctive structure” that includes norms such as monogamy, fidelity and permanence.

As a reading of his article would show, his argument is consistent with and even enhances the complex reality of conjugal marriage, despite the fact that his argument focuses primarily on one dimension–the bodily dimension–of this reality. In order to recover what is lost in this condensed version of his argument (and do greater justice to the nuances of Dr. George’s argument), I conclude by briefly reintegrating the concepts in the summary into a more complete view of conjugal marriage.

I.  Conjugal Marriage and Homosexual Partnerships are Fundamentally Different:

(1) Conjugal marriage is the most comprehensive relationship possible between human persons in that it includes the union of wills, minds, resources and bodies.

(2) The body is an integral part of the human person, not just a possession (we distinguish between vandalism and assault because the body is not a possession like one’s car or home).

(3) Therefore, any relationship that is to be as completely comprehensive as conjugal marriage must include the union of bodies, not just minds, wills and resources. (from (1) and (2)).

(4) Complete bodily union involves the coordination of bodily parts for the common biological purpose of the whole (e.g. the heart is completely unified with the body of an individual in that it coordinates with other bodily parts for the common biological purpose of sustaining the organic life of the individual).

(5) The most complete bodily union possible for human persons is the sexual union of couples of the opposite sex (like the heart with respect to the individual body, the reproductive organs of the couple coordinate for the common biological purpose (reproduction) of the whole (the man and women)).

(6) Given what complete bodily union involves ((4) above) and that only the sexual union of heterosexual couples can achieve this ((5) above), only opposite sex couples can achieve the most complete bodily union possible for human persons (recall, however, that while the complete comprehensiveness of a conjugal marriage requires full bodily union, it is only a necessary not a sufficient condition, and requires the union of the persons in other respects (.e.g. union of minds and wills), of which the bodily union is the sign, seal or consummation–see last section below for a fuller explanation).

(7) Therefore, the complete comprehensiveness of conjugal marriage is possible only for couples of the opposite sex (from (4) – (6)).

(8) Homosexual partnerships cannot achieve complete bodily union and, as a result, cannot achieve the most completely comprehensive relationship definitive of the conjugal view of marriage (corollary of (7)).

(9) Therefore, due to the complete comprehensiveness of the conjugal view of marriage, it is uniquely different from homosexual partnerships (from 8; also, see the last section below for a more expansive description of what the complete comprehensiveness of the conjugal view of marriage, including its complete bodily union, involves).

II.  Treating Homosexual Partnerships Differently is Not Unjust Discrimination:

(10) Discrimination is the act of making a clear distinction between things based on the different features of those things.

(11) Unjust discrimination consists of treating two things that are the same as different (e.g. A teacher giving an ‘A’ to one A paper, but a ‘B’ to another A paper) or of treating different things differently, but not in the way that each deserves (e.g. A teacher giving an ‘A‘ to an A paper, but an ‘F‘ to a B paper).

(12) Therefore, treating homosexual partnerships as different from conjugal marriages is not unjust discrimination (from (9) – (11)).

[Note that this is a philosophical argument for treating the the two types of relationships differently. While this provides a foundation for arguing they should be treated differently under the law (i.e. in relation to the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution), further argument would obviously be needed.]

III.  Homosexual Marriage Would Undermine Traditional Marriage:

(13) Culture shapes laws and laws influence culture.

(14) Legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriage would, therefore, shape society’s understanding of marriage (from 13).

(15) The Legal recognition of homosexual partnerships, which lack complete bodily union and thus complete comprehensiveness, would increase societal understanding of marriage as based fundamentally on emotion, and emotions are transient and inconsistent (i.e. the marriage remains only so long as the couples continue to be “in love” with each other).

(16) To the extent the legal recognition of homosexual partnerships promotes marriages based on emotion, it would obscure marriages based solely on friendship, which may be capable of greater permanence because they are based on the union of minds and wills.

(17) Even if the legal recognition of homosexual partnership does not obscure the idea of marriage based solely on friendship, even these marriages lack the inherent reasons for exclusivity and permanence possessed by conjugal marriages which involve complete bodily union and thus orientation toward the rearing and bearing of children (see last section below for a more complete explanation of this).

(18) The legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriage would also communicate that no parenting arrangement is better than any other (same sex parents would be on par with opposite sex parents) and would eliminate social pressures for husbands to stay with their wives (because of the damage done to traditional marriage and the inherent reasons for permanence it implies).

(19) Therefore, the legal recognition of homosexual partnerships would undermine societal understanding of the connection between marriage, children, the permanence and exclusivity this connection supports, and thus contribute to marital instability (from (15)-(18).

IV.  Homosexual Marriage Undermines the Common Good:

(20) Children fare best when reared by wedded biological parents in a stable, permanent, exclusive, marriage (Dr. George’s article cites several studies in support of this premise).

(21) The common good of society requires that children grow into health, well-adjusted, responsible adults (and if the family does not accomplish this, the state and society will have to deal with the consequence).

(22) Therefore, legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriage would injure the common good of society (from (20)- (21))

V.  Homosexual Marriage Threatens Moral and Religious Freedom:

(23) If homosexual partnerships and conjugal marriages are treated the same legally, any discrimination between the two as being different and as conjugal marriage being better would be considered unjust under the law.

(24) Therefore, legal recognition of homosexual partnerships as marriage would diminish the moral and religious freedom of parents to direct the education of their children (that this could happen, recall, e.g., Catholic Charities in California having to discontinue adoption services for refusing to place children with same-sex couples).

Full Bodily Union is Not Only Essential to but Reflects the Comprehensiveness of Conjugal Marriage

Dr. George’s argument relies on an analysis of the bodily dimension of marriage and, more specifically, is grounded fundamentally on the premise that the body is an integral part of the human person (by basing his argument on this premise, he is correcting the Cartesian mind-body split that has infected our culture, a split that treats the person as merely mind and will and the body as an instrumental appendage (See John Paul II’s Theology of the Body for the theological counterpart to Dr. George’s effort to reintegrate the body into our understanding of the human person)). In order for a relationship to be completely comprehensive, as required by marriage, it must consist of a completely comprehensive union of the whole of two human persons. Because the human body is an integral part of the human person, a relationship that lacks the most complete type of bodily union possible for human beings lacks the completely comprehensive union required for marriage and is therefore not a marriage. The most complete type of bodily union possible for human beings can only occur between a man and a woman. As such, marriage can only be between a man and a woman.

As this argument implies, while sexual intercourse between a man and woman is necessary for the comprehensiveness that marriage requires, it is not sufficient. Just as the body is an integral part of the person, so too is the mind, will and heart. The union of these dimensions of each person is also necessary for the comprehensive union required for marriage. It is due to the complete comprehensive union of marriage that marriage also requires exclusivity and permanence. The complete unity of one person to another requires the unity of each person’s past, present, and future. In this way marriage requires permanence, or exclusivity in time. Likewise, marriage must be exclusive–each person devoted to the other and to no other–because a completely comprehensive union cannot be achieved if one’s attention and loyalties are divided.

Importantly, the conjugal act–the complete bodily union between a married man and woman in marriage–is not only an essential component of the completely comprehensive union that marriage requires, but both is and represents the characteristics of the completely comprehensive union of the other dimensions of married persons. As Dr. George points out, for bodily union to be completely comprehensive requires the “union of organs into one healthy whole, total and lasting for the life of the parts.” The total comprehensiveness of bodily union not only requires unity “through time (hence permanence),” but also “each time (hence exclusivity).” Thus, the completely comprehensive bodily union in marriage is, in itself, complete, permanent and exclusive, but in being so, signifies and even truly ‘embodies’ the complete, permanent, and exclusive union of the couple’s minds, wills, and hearts (this is why, according to Dr. George, the conjugal act “seals” or “consummates” the couple’s total marital union). This means, of course, that sexual intercourse between a man and woman cannot be a completely comprehensive bodily union and thus marital unless it occurs in the context of the complete, permanent, and exclusive union of the other, non-bodily dimensions of the couple’s lives. In that context, however, it both is and represents the couple’s total unity.

Not surprisingly, then, the nature of authentic conjugal acts, an essential component of real marriage, are not only oriented to the bearing and raising of children but are found only in the most appropriate context for childrearing–conjugal marriage. Obviously, due to the fact that authentic conjugal acts involve (and require) the complete bodily union of a man and a women, they are inherently procreated and thus oriented to child-bearing (this is true whether the couple conceives a child or not, just as a baseball team’s coordinated acts on the field still constitute playing “baseball” whether they win or not). Further, as explained above, authentic conjugal acts are complete, permanent and exclusive just as the marital relationship as a whole is that these acts help to create and of which they are a part. Thus, unlike other less comprehensive relationships, permanence and exclusivity are inherent to the structure of conjugal marriage. Granting the veracity of the studies Dr. George cites that conclude that children fair best when reared by wedded biological parents in a stable, permanent, exclusive, marriage, it follows that the only relationships of the type in which authentic conjugal acts can occur–i.e. heterosexual marriages–are best suited to the bearing and rearing of children.

This hopefully makes clear that while Dr. George’s argument focuses primarily on bodily component of marriage, it is both entirely consistent with the much richer, complex traditional understanding of marriage, and even helps to explain certain features such as exclusivity and permanence and the relation of these features to the bearing and raising of children. Further, while the argument is consistent with the traditional Christian understanding of marriage, it does not depend on religious assumptions. As such, it has the potential to persuade those who do not share such beliefs and, at the very least, to deflect charges that those against “gay marriage” are religious bigots without any rational basis for their view.

As mentioned, this summary does not address the responses Dr. George goes on to make in his article to number of common objections. His responses do much to bolster his argument. A summary of his responses is forthcoming in a second essay.

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13 replies to this post
  1. I think there is a much less tortured line of argument, and much more compelling one. Marriage as a legal institution is either oriented towards the convenience and utility of the adults ("happiness," "fulfillment," or what have you) or it is oriented towards the begetting and raising of children. If it is oriented towards the adults, with children as an optional feature, then there can be no argument against homosexual marriage; two individuals, or ten, can contract to do whatever is legal, and since homosexual acts are legal, there is, and can be no bar. But in this case, neither is there any reason for the law to grant it any particular recognition. Let the contracting individuals define marriage for themselves, and everyone else must remain silent.

    But if marriage is oriented towards the begetting of children, their proper rearing, education and socialization, their rights of inheritance, etc., then the law has a great interest in marriage, and marriage has a particular shape and scope.

    What homosexuals really want, imo, is not so much marriage, as the privileges which go with it. Many goods are divided based on marital status, such as employee's insurance extended to spouses, tax deductions, rights of inheritance, etc. In other words, they want to compel employers to grant their "spouses" insurance, the state to give them privileges, etc. But these things are in place ONLY because they assume a certain form of marriage, and without that form, they are mere subsidies for acts the consenting adults could, and should, do for themselves.

    I could expand on this, but that's enough for a combox.

  2. Dr. Medaille,

    Your remarks are right on and, in fact, Dr. George makes those very same arguments (which I didn't summarize here) in responding to certain objections. Dr. George argues, as you indicate, that if marriage is severed from children and oriented principally toward the individuals involved, there's not principled reason one can give as to why "marriage" should be limited to two persons or why the state should have any special interest in granting it legal recognition.

    However, I tend to think that Dr. George is right to first establish that the traditional conception of marriage differs fundamentally from homosexual relationships (hence the complex argument based on bodily union). First, in order to conclude that the state has a vested interest in legally recognizing only traditional marriage (for the reason that it is oriented to children and their bearing and proper rearing is essential to the common good of society), one must first show that marriage is, in fact, oriented to the bearing and rearing of children, and more specifically, that only traditional marriage – i.e. marriage between one man and one woman – is so oriented.

    Second, showing that traditional marriage fundamentally differs from homosexual partnerships undercuts the argument that the two relationships are the same and should therefore be treated under the law as such.

    Third, arguing that the complete bodily union (requiring one man and one woman) of traditional marriage makes sense of traditional marital norms, such as permanence, exclusivity, fidelity, etc., and that these norms are inherent in only this understanding of marriage, helps to show that legally enshrining homosexual partnerships as marriage would further erode our society's marriage culture because it would contribute to a societal understanding of marriage as divorced from the bearing and rearing of children. In doing so, it would damage the common good by weakening the institution in which children are properly reared, educated and socialized.

    I also agree that the receipt of domestic benefits is strong motive behind homosexuals' desire for the legal recognition of their relationships. However, I'm inclined to think that many do want society to approve of their relationships and to think of them as no different from traditional marriage. Legal recognition would be the sign or proof that society on the whole either does (or should start) recognizing them as relationships that are as morally legitimate as traditional marriage. Otherwise, why would those clamoring for legal recognition as marriage not be content with either recognition as a civil union or, with respect to certain issues (e.g. inheritance, right to make medical or legal/business transactional decisions on behalf of their partner) simply take advantage of the legal options that already exist (e.g. power of attorney).

  3. I think that the reason so many people are easily swayed today that Homosexual marriages are acceptable lies in the fact that without a Christian education, traditional marriage has lost meaning. Many in the postmodern, Western World have lost the sense of permanance in anything at all, let alone ones commitment to burdensome children and a spouse beyond all personal discomfort. The Divorce rate confirms it, in part. So, since marriage in general is thought to be a combination of lust and companionship, without the higher ideals of a Christian Community, and the assignment of Children's education to the largess and whim of the State, this 'divorce' of spirit and community has opened the door for homosexual unions, and rationalist, empirical justifications for it. Vague notions, such as a "spiritual but not religious" devotion supply the foundation for diaster in families today. In the end, I must agree with the approach outlined by Dr. George and so well explained above; yet to turn the public mind in favour politically, the traditional view of marriage needs a momentous revival in the modern, popular culture.

  4. Mr. Creech, many thanks for your considerable effort here! Now, were I to fall in love with a knowingly barren woman, and we agreed to marry certain that we could produce no children, how would that marriage differ (apart from legal recognition) from a homosexual union? Each couple may love one another, each have sexual congress, each adopt children that they could not procreate together, each forswear affairs with others, each benefit from state incentives, etc. Is this not a flaw in the argument (ignoring that my homosexual friends agree that homosexual relationships tend to be less stable than heterosexual ones)? Does no prospect of child-bearing negate this author's definition of marriage? Apologies if I missed something here.

  5. I think "represents and signifies" are key here in his argument. A man and a woman, barren, can represent and signify the societies intentions, whereas a gay couple cannot. So even if in actual effect the result is the same, the representation of Societies intent for its greater good is different.

    However, while I have not been recently studying the subject, the Constitutional argument that Natural Law has significance may be able to restore the conversation to one about common sense principles derived from basic human experience at the fundamental level, whether one conjectures that the general religious impulse to marry is a state endorsed religion or a simple function of normal societies that the Government may regulate as recognized to be part of the Natural, Normative Order

  6. The human person is much more than his biological functions. One of the primary differences between the animal and the human is choice. Choice is about distinction, determination, commitment, values, in general, "personhood". Choice is about thinking and valueing. So, marriage is about the choice of a marital partner and the character of loyalty between partners as well as, the commitment to the institution of marriage, as a couple. It is social recognition that homosexual couples seek, an acknowlegement of their commitment and valuing another.

    The argument that homosexual unions would allow incest, polygamy or bestiality is a "straw man". America believes in the value of the individual. This is why we have won "Civil Rights" for women, and African Americans. Therefore, I doubt that polygamy, beastiality or incest would be condoned in our society.

    You seem to use "natural law" as a "creation/design" argument, which prescribes "roles and functions", apart from choice. That would affirm religious understandings, but does nothing to set humans apart from animals, generally.

    Choice is about how culture has been internalized and personalized, as well as how the individual is distinct in his own person. Animals may have "cultures", but they can never choose to change their culture. Animals can be trained, but only by "fear of punishment" or desire to please their "masters". Humans have the capacity to understand themselves apart from their social groups.

    Neuroscience has been attempting to unravel the mysteries of how the brain/mind interact. Choice will be understood better, as science brings these things "to light".

  7. Unfortunately, while this argument is a good one, only 5% of America care to think at these levels and understand logic. The voting majority is uneducated and ignorant and anti-Judeo Christian values and therefore, we are moving into a dark time in American History.

  8. Ms.Van De Merwe, you have brought up two important points central to understanding the fundamental cultural disagreement about this issue. First, you agree with Mr. Creech in saying that the homosexual movement (as distinct from individual homosexuals) wants moral legimitacy much more than particular advantages. For most of our history, homosexuality has been at least publicly considered the most repugnant of the sexual vices because it is “contra naturam”, it goes against the very core of the most natural desire we have, which is to have children. Homosexuals, like most people who live in sin, hate to be told that they are living in sin [see this most marvelous and honest expression of it [] in Julia Flyte’s reaction to being told she is “living in sin” with Charles Ryder (from Brideshead Revisited)]. This also partly explains why pro-choicers show such anger, using the worst kind of abusive language, to pro-lifers. Such reactions, ugly though they are, are really a marvelous witness to the deep power of conscience in our society. *

    You also reveal that the whole debate goes much deeper than homosexuality – it is fundamentally connected to what defines us as a people – our love of freedom. Your description of choice bears a strong resemblance to Justice Kennedy’s appalling description: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life….”

    I think this is a very dangerous understanding of human freedom, though it is one that permeates most mainstream television or movie productions. Traditionally, choice, wherein lies our freedom, is understood to be something determined by an end or goal or standard. We choose to act in certain ways because we want something that will result from our actions. What makes us human is that, when we choose, we see that we could act in other ways than the one we choose. Since we can see other possibilities for our actions, we are responsible for those we choose. Animals and children cannot, and so cannot be held responsible for what they do.

    Choice, to be human, must be rational, and so judgeable by standards (some natural, some cultural) not of our own making. But if choice to be human must make its own standards, it must be wholly personal and free from any standards and expectations by which we can judge the rightness of choice. Choice then becomes simply irrational will, and human freedom makes us more bestial than the beasts.

    Certainly we must internalize nature and culture in order to grow and develop as human beings. But this is not the same as defining them, as making our own standards which are in no way accountable.

  9. * This story from Archbishop Fulton Sheen illustrates my point:

    In addition, finally, you'll often hear among yourselves, young men and women talking and saying, "I don't believe anymore I am an atheist. I just can't believe in God and the like."

    Do not argue with them. I will give you a rule that will help you very much in life. Never pay very much attention to what people say, pay attention instead to why they say it. What are they covering up?

    I was instructing this stewardess of an international airline, I got up to the subject of Confession, and she said:.

    "Now, I'll never go to Confession after hearing this instruction. I refuse to become a Catholic."

    Well, I said, "Take one more lesson, and then at the end of that instruction you may discontinue."

    Well, at the end of the next instruction, she was enraged. She shrieked, screaming, "Let me out of here! Now I'll never be a Catholic."

    I said, "My dear girl, there's no proportion whatever between what you have heard and the way your acting. Have you had an abortion?"

    She said, "Yes."

    She finished instructions, I later witnessed the marriage and baptized a baby.

    Do not pay attention to what people say. Why do they say what they say? Why was she attacking Confession? It was her way of escaping her inner guilt, blaming it on the Sacrament.

  10. Well said, Dr. Seeley.

    Many thanks for these posts on a topic that has taken on renewed importance this week. Compare with John Creech's original post what VP Joe Biden said: "What this is all about is a simple proposition: Who do you love?" He is expressing (ungrammatically) the doctrine of irrational and unrestrained choice that Andrew outlines above.

  11. Just to respond to a couple of your points; first, you're claim that there's a "straw man" argument here. You offer in support that "America believes in the value of the individual", by which I assume you mean (based on your first paragraph), the right of person's to make free choices because of the high value we place on personal autonomy. I fail to see how the respect for personal autonomy, apart from other considerations, would prevent us from having to accept polygamy or incest (among adults), at least when all parties to such relationships have entered those relationships freely. With respect to bestiality, it would seem only the human has the capacity for choice, and elevating autonomy above all else, would require respecting one's choice to engage in bestiality.

    Regarding your point that the human person is much more than his biological functions — I would agree. The difference is that I think the entire human person – mind, will and body matter. The argument for homosexual unions depends on the Cartesian dualism that only mind and will makes the person. If such dualism is wrong, the argument for homosexual unions collapses. See my posts on Homosexuality v. Incest for a fuller elaboration of this point.

    In response to you point about natural law, there may be some understandings that depend on the prior assumption that a transcendent being exists. But most natural law theorists would also have philosophical arguments (i.e. rational argument, not based on religious premises) to support that assumption. Nothing in the above argument depends, however, at least explicitly, on religious assumptions, or even the existence of a transcendent being. If you're referring to my assumption that biological organs and systems perform specific functions – i.e. work toward a particular end or purpose – I fail to see how that's a "creation/design" argument. Many biologist speak in these terms and there's no general consensus that doing so is religious and unscientific.

  12. We could use more forensics on what everyone in this discussion means when they use the word 'marriage'. What are the precise definitions? It appears that not everyone is talking about the same thing.

    It is more accurate that this debate is over two marriages. For lack of a better term, the first is 'government marriage' and the second is 'religious marriage.' Strong arguments exist that a couple can obtain one or the other or both.

    "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's…."

    The government allows for marriage at a courthouse, and possesses certain pre-requirements before the marriage certificate can be authorized. Likewise, most religions, have their own criteria before they issue their own marriage certificates. For example, the Catholic Church's requirements (baptism, pre-cana classes, etc) are often quite distinguishable. Thus government institutions and religious institutions possess very different criteria and are not talking about the same thing when they use the common word 'marriage'. There would be only certain areas of overlap if all the elements in the definitions of 'government marriage' and 'religious marriage' were placed onto a Venn diagram graphic. Further, various religions and states have various differences that would require many different Venn diagrams when comparing their definitions of marriage.

    If Biden is for allowing 'government marriage' to mean, among other things, that two people of the same gender can receive a government marriage certificate, that is one thing. If Biden is for coercing or forcing religious institutions to, against their teachings and criteria, perform 'religious marriages', then that is quite another thing.

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