What’s the role of government in marriage—what is its legitimate role?
Note that I’m not asking what’s the role or position of marriage itself; I’m not asking what marriage is, nor with whom one should be allowed to get married. What I’m asking is: "what is is government’s proper place in the process?
Understand that marriages (however you might personally might choose to define them) pre-dates government recognition of the phenomenon. In fact, the institution of marriage pre-dates government altogether, so historically it’s not a matter of government defining marriage, but recognising it. Governments saw what people were up to, and thought they could take a cut. (As, incidentally, did the church.)
And what were people up to? They were making agreements between themselves, mostly about co-habiting. As far as the government was legitimately concerned, what they were recognising that people were making these agreements—and it was the government’s job to protect them. In this sense, in this particular context, the marriage contract is no different to any other contract the government agrees to protect.
Every contract protects an agreement. You and I can make a contract with whomever we like, agreeing to anything at all, just as long as what we’re agreeing to do is not illegal. You agree to deliver the goods and I agree to pay you. That’s a contract. You agree to deliver a service and I agree to pay you. That’s a contract. You agree to love, honour and obey, and I agree to give you half of everything I own when we divorce. That’s another contract—what we choose to call a marriage contract. We agree on that deal (maybe after a little negotiation on the details) and the government registers and prepares to defend the contract if necessary.
That’s their job. Our job is simply to live up to what we’ve agreed to (while keeping out of other people’s similar agreements).
And we can agree to anything we like, just as long as what we’re agreeing to do is not itself illegal.
So where does this put gay marriage, and government’s role in it?
Well, what do you think?
It seems clear enough to me.