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Divided on same-sex marriage // WHY

We are engaged in a debate which, in a less confused time, would be considered pointless and oxymoronic: the question of same-sex marriage.

But we are where we are. The Hawaii Supreme Court has discovered a new state constitutional "right" _ the legal union of same-sex couples. Unless a "compelling state interest" can be shown against them, Hawaii will become the first state to sanction such unions. And if Hawaii legalizes same-sex marriages, other states might well have to recognize them because of the Constitution's Full Faith and Credit Clause. Some in Congress recently introduced legislation to prevent this from happening.

Now, anyone who has known someone who has struggled with his homosexuality can appreciate the poignancy, human pain and sense of exclusion that are often involved. One can therefore understand the effort to achieve for homosexual unions both legal recognition and social acceptance. Advocates of homosexual marriages even make what appears to be a sound conservative argument: Allow marriage in order to promote faithfulness and monogamy. But I believe that overall, allowing same-sex marriages would do long-term social damage.

Recognizing the legal union of gay and lesbian couples would represent a profound change in the meaning and definition of marriage. Indeed, it would be the most radical step ever taken in the deconstruction of society's most important institution. It is not a step we ought to take.

The function of marriage is not elastic; the institution is already fragile enough. Broadening its definition to include same-sex marriages would stretch it almost beyond recognition _ and new attempts to broaden the definition still further would surely follow. On what principled grounds could the advocates of same-sex marriage oppose the marriage of two consenting brothers?

Marriage is not an arbitrary construct; it is an "honorable estate" based on the different, complementary natures of men and women. It mirrors the accumulated wisdom of millennia and the teaching of every major religion.

To say that same-sex unions are not comparable to heterosexual marriages is not an argument for intolerance. But it is an argument for making distinctions in law about relationships that are themselves distinct. Even Andrew Sullivan, among the most intelligent advocates of same-sex marriage, has admitted that homosexual marriage will entail a greater understanding of the need for "extramarital outlets." He argues that gay male relationships are served by the "openness of the contract," and he has written that homosexuals should resist allowing their lives to be flattened into a "single, moralistic model."

But this "single, moralistic model" is precisely the point. The marriage commitment between a man and a woman does not _ it cannot _ countenance extramarital outlets. Its essential idea is fidelity. In insisting that marriage accommodate less restrained sexual practices, Sullivan and his allies destroy the very thing that supposedly has drawn them to marriage in the first place.

There are other arguments to consider against same-sex marriage _ for example, its impact on the shaping of human sexuality, particularly among the young. Former Harvard professor E.

L. Pattullo has written that "a very substantial number of people are born with the potential to live either straight or gay lives." Societal indifference about sexuality would cause confusion. A 1993 article in the Washington Post supports this point. According to the article, teenagers who were interviewed said it has become "cool" for students to proclaim they are gay or bisexual _ even for some who are not.

If the law recognizes homosexual marriages as the legal equivalent of heterosexual marriages, it will have enormous repercussions in many areas. Consider just two: sex education in the public schools and adoption. Public schools would have to teach that heterosexual and homosexual marriage are equivalent. Homosexual couples also would have equal claim with heterosexual couples in adopting children, forcing us to deny what we know to be true: that it is far better for a child to be raised by a mother and a father than by, say, two male homosexuals.

The institution of marriage is already reeling because of the effects of the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce and out-of-wedlock births. It is imprudent to conduct a radical, untested and inherently flawed social experiment on an institution that is the keystone in the arch of civilization. That we have to debate this issues at all tells us that the arch has slipped. Getting it firmly back in place is, as the lawyers say, a "compelling state interest."

William J. Bennett is co-director of Empower America.

Special to the Washington Post