Following the recent California Supreme Court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage, National Public Radio offered a report on “the coming storm” between two “titanic” legal principles: “equal treatment for same-sex couples” and “the freedom to exercise religious beliefs.” The report gave several examples of this “collision,” which opponents cite as proof that same-sex marriage is a threat to religious liberty. The idea of an impending collision may overstate the intensity of impending legal conflicts, especially since cases of this nature have been fought for several decades following the emergence of laws prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment and education for non-heterosexuals. Still, the current portrayal of this conflict does foreground the complex relationship of marriage, religion, and the state to promote one form of marriage (white, heterosexual, monogamous). It is same-sex marriage’s (and polygamy’s) challenge to this interrelationship that provokes such anxiety among religious conservatives.

Posts by Stephanie Coontz and Tey Meadow and Judith Stacey reveal the multilayered and complex history of marriage and Christianity in Europe and America, and its culmination in what Coontz remarks was an “untraditional” shift by the state to make marriage a privileged status that is attached to a large number of social and economic benefits (and constraints). In this vein, I will turn my attention to the less-known marriage promotion movement in the United States, in order to shed further light on how state and religion work together to define and protect the boundaries of marriage, and what this movement might mean for the future of marriage equality.

In the late 1990s, a coalition of religious and civic leaders, public officials, family therapists, educators, researchers, and others launched the “marriage movement,” which supports government policies to promote marriage under the philosophy that reducing the rate of divorce and single parenting and strengthening marriage will also alleviate poverty. These policies were codified into federal law in the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA) of 1996. Ending over sixty years of federal welfare benefits to poor families, PRWORA created discretionary state block grants under the rubric of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and specifically designated marriage promotion as a sanctioned use of federal funds. With the election of President George W. Bush, federal funding for marriage promotion has grown substantially. The Healthy Marriage Initiative within the Administration for Children and Families has directed federal money to promote marriage and fatherhood programs, and in 2005, Congress passed the Federal Appropriations Act that includes more than $500 million annually for marriage promotion.

On the surface, the philosophy of marriage promotion appears benign and even salutary. President Bush’s Healthy Marriage Initiative website describes the goal of marriage promotion: “To help couples, who have chosen marriage for themselves, gain greater access to marriage education services, on a voluntary basis, where they can acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to form and sustain a healthy marriage.” Diane Sollee, who organizes the annual SmartMarriages conferences—the meeting ground of marriage promotion advocates—helped to inaugurate what is now known as marriage education, the idea that couples can learn skills to help them communicate more effectively and manage conflict. From this angle, the goal of offering marriage education appears beyond critique. The government is providing a much-needed service to give couples the tools to form “healthy marriages.” Below the surface, however, the story is more complex.

The marriage promotion movement blends together various state and community actors into what sociologist Scott Coltrane calls a “hybrid political-religious grouping.” While it is true that the movement’s diversity belies the simple religious “fundamentalist” classification, marriage promotion draws religion and science together in novel ways. Relying on social science evidence, it presents a secular argument about the negative social consequences of the weakening of marriage as justification for using federal money to offer marriage education, taught in many cases by conservative religious volunteers in secular and religious environments. These educators teach about the superiority of one family form, the one religious conservatives call “traditional marriage.”

In 2004, I conducted ethnographic research for ten months in Oklahoma on its statewide marriage initiative. The state became a pioneer of marriage promotion in 1999 when the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) committed $10 million from its federal TANF block grant and contracted with Public Strategies, Inc. (a private, for-profit firm) to develop and manage the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative (OMI). One of the initiative’s first strategies to strengthen marriage was a drive for religious leaders to sign the Oklahoma Marriage Covenant, a contract asking pastors to make a commitment to set aside a “preparation period” of four to six months before performing a wedding and to require marital preparation classes. It reads: “I believe that marriage is a covenant intended by God to be a lifelong relationship between a man and a woman. I promise to God, to my family, and my community to encourage couples to remain steadfast in unconditional love, reconciliation, and sexual purity, while purposefully growing in their covenant marriage relationship.” In 2004, OMI estimated signatures of over 1,200 pastors.

The state mingled public policy and religion to provide marriage education using federal TANF money to many white, middle-class, heterosexual couples. An OKDHS supervisor told me that the initiative had difficulty getting services to the low-income population. She attested to the fact that the initiative was largely built through Protestant churches and provided services to the middle class: “I kept thinking, well, this is more of a Protestant Oklahoma Marriage Initiative, but no one wanted to deal with that.” The 1996 PRWORA law sanctions this redistribution of TANF funds to “encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families,” a provision that applies not only to needy families but also to more privileged ones. Mixing religion and public policy to disseminate marriage education is not particular to Oklahoma, but is also true of other government-funded marriage programs, including one in Orange County, California.

While religious conservatives balk at their loss of religious liberty under an increasingly wide array of antidiscrimination laws in relation to non-heterosexuals, it is significant that government marriage promotion policies combine religion and science to extend the privileged status of marriage to white, middle-class, heterosexual couples. This analysis speaks to the demands that social justice will require of the movement for marriage equality. Even as the battle against “separate but equal” recognition of same-sex couples gains legal footing, those fighting for marriage equality must take into consideration the consequences of the movement on other forms of social inequality. On the one hand, as states move in the direction of Massachusetts and California, it will become more difficult for government, politics, and religion to unite in an effort to promote heterosexual marriage as the superior family form. On the other, as Meadow and Stacey argue in their post, it does not offer justice to those outside the boundary of marriage who are barred from accessing its socioeconomic benefits, whether straight or gay. Thus, there are good reasons to expand the fight for marriage equality to consider the option offered in the California Supreme Court decision, for the state to eliminate the term “marriage” altogether and allow religious and secular communities to offer their own “definition.” This solution will not eliminate legal conflicts over antidiscrimination and religious liberty, but it might provide for a more just world.