One major dictionary company has defined marriage in broader terms than the U.S. government.
Similar to the definition of marriage under federal law, Merriam-Webster states marriage as "the state of being united to a person of the opposite sex as husband or wife in a consensual and contractual relationship recognized by law." Every state in the nation recognizes marriage on similar terms except for Connecticut and Massachusetts.
But the dictionary runs askew from legal recognition of marriage by the federal government and almost all the states by tacking on a secondary definition that counts unions between same-sex couples as "marriage."
Merriam-Webster added the secondary meaning for marriage in 2003, even before gay marriage was legalized anywhere in the country. Whereas the company's dictionary editions prior to 2003 stated no mention of same-sex marriage, the latest version now defines marriage also as "the state of being united to a person of the same sex in a relationship like that of a traditional marriage."
The change went unnoticed until WorldNetDaily recently reported on a YouTube video calling attention to the marriage "redefinition."
The video prompted heated responses including one from a forum participant who charged gay rights activists with trying to control the definition of marriage in an effort to push their agenda.
"The word 'marriage' has never been synonymous with same sex relationships," said the forum participant, according to WorldNetDaily. "What is happening is the meaning is being changed to trigger it becoming synonymous, not the other way round."
Kory Stamper, an associate editor at Merriam-Webster, denied any "social or political agenda" behind the decision to change how the dictionary defines marriage, according to WND.
"We hear such criticism from all parts of the political spectrum. We're genuinely sorry when an entry in – or an omission from – one of our dictionaries is found to be offensive or upsetting, but we can't allow such considerations to deflect us from our primary job as lexicographers," stated Stamper.
The Springfield, Mass.-based company issued a statement Wednesday claiming that the secondary definition was added to reflect the frequency of "same-sex marriage" and "gay marriage" in publications.
"In recent years, this sense of 'marriage' has appeared frequently and consistently through a broad spectrum of carefully edited publications, and is often used in phrases such as 'same-sex marriage' and 'gay marriage' by proponents and opponents alike," the statement read, according to the Associated Press. "Its inclusion was a simple matter of providing dictionary users with accurate information about all of the word's current uses."
Merriam-Webster spokesman Arthur Bicknell noted that the company was one of the last major dictionary publishers to revise the definition of marriage to include homosexual unions.
The controversy over gay marriage is expected to heat up once again since the Obama administration has said it will seek the full repeal of the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which defines marriage as a union between a man and woman for all purposes of federal law and protects states from being forced to recognized same-sex marriages from other states.
Many states, in the meantime, are still wrangling over the legal issue of gay marriage. The California Supreme Court is expected to soon issue its ruling on a gay marriage ban approved by voters in November. Earlier this week, Vermont became the latest state to introduce legislation to legalize same-sex marriage.
Despite what dictionaries may call marriage, many religious leaders have said that changing the definition of marriage will not necessarily change its meaning.
Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, called redefining marriage to include same-sex couples was "moral insanity," when The Canadian Oxford Dictionary announced in 2003 that it was changing the definition of marriage to read "the legal or religious union of two people."
"We did not invent marriage; it is the God-ordained covenant that unites a man and a woman in the monogamous marital union, establishes a new household, and liberates the married couple to enjoy all the benefits - and bear all the responsibilities - of married life and parenthood," stated Mohler on his blog. "Homosexual activists may win in the courts and in the dictionary, but they cannot reverse reality."