The practical impact of the proposed Amendment 3 was at the heart of a debate Thursday night at the University of Utah.
In less than two weeks Utahns will vote on the proposed constitutional amendment, which would define marriage as a legal union between a man and a woman and deny that legal status to any other domestic union.
"There's enough marriage to share. Gay people will not use up all the marriage licenses," said Evan Wolfson, executive director of Freedom to Marry, who works to win marriage equality. "No one will be hurt. Marriage will be helped, and our whole community will be strengthened."
On the other side of the debate, William Duncan of the Sutherland Institute argued that the institution of marriage will be the victim if Utahns do not vote to protect it. Social signals are learned through traditional marriage and not through same-sex unions, he said.
"We risk losing an institution that binds generations," he said.
Duncan and his debate partner, Brigham Young University professor Lynn Wardle, also said the gay community was asking the government to change the definition of marriage, not just to extend marriage benefits to same-sex couples.
"A right to marry doesn't mean a right to determine what marriage means," Duncan said.
Lara Schwartz, senior counsel for the Human Rights campaign, joined Wolfson in the debate and disputed the idea that same-sex marriages would threaten the institution of marriage.
"What's at stake Nov. 2 is huge. What's not at stake is the sanctity of marriage," she said. "Same-sex couples are simply asking to enter into and honor marriage."
Wolfson added that similar battles over traditional marriage have been fought in the United States through birth control, divorce and interracial marriage. In each of those battles, he said, people worried that traditional marriage would crumble.
The real threat, Wolfson said, is to the tradition of freedom in the United States. By passing Amendment 3 and similar laws in other states, he said the nation would start a habit of using "constitutional brute force to slice people off" the list of human rights.
"It would be terrible for our country to use the government as a weapon to enforce disrespect through the law," he said. "We would be using the constitution to enforce that level of discrimination."