The Australian Christian Lobby is asking the government to suspend anti-discrimination and vilification laws in the lead-up to the plebiscite on marriage equality. They say that this these laws would mean that it was not possible or safe for the ‘no’ campaign to put their case against marriage equality.
To me, this sounds like an admission of defeat. If you can’t put your case without committing “any public act that could incite or encourage hatred, serious contempt or severe ridicule [because of someone’s] race, homosexuality or transgender status, or because they have HIV/AIDS“, then there is something seriously wrong with your case.
(For those who are curious, here is a quick guide to Australia’s anti-discrimination legislation, both Federal and state by state)
I am a Christian. I also support marriage equality. I support marriage equality in part because I am a Christian, and to me, that means I have a duty to seek justice and to stand with the oppressed. Setting aside all other considerations, our marriage laws are unjust on a purely practical level. As we saw with the sad case recently in South Australia, where a young British man died on his honeymoon and his husband was excluded by law from being named as his husband on the death certificate – and was only able to make funeral arrangements under the sufferance of his father in law – our laws do not protect gay couples at the times when they most need protection.
If I died, the law would automatically assume that my husband was my next of kin, entitled to make decisions about everything from organ donation to funeral arrangements. If I had children, my husband would not have to do a thing to be recognised as their guardian. If I didn’t have a will, he would still be my chief beneficiary. If I were sick before I died, there would be no question of him being unable to visit me.
My friends who are gay cannot take these things for granted. If their partners’ families do not approve of their relationship, they risk losing everything in an emergency, including the right to be recognised as a part of their partner’s life. Even with a registered relationship, one does not have the same rights as a straight couple would have.
This is not just, or right, or fair, and it sends a terrible message to young people who might be gay – it tells them that their relationships are second class, that the state does not recognise them as equal, and it validates the opinions of those who do not accept them.
But getting back to the Australian Christian Lobby, their argument seems to be, as I understand it, that *any* statement against marriage equality will be viewed as discriminatory, and therefore they can’t argue against it.
Look, I don’t much like the Australian Christian Lobby, but I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt for a moment. I’m going to assume that they are coming from a place of sincerity – that they really do fear that they are being persecuted, and that anything they say against marriage equality might get them jailed for vilification.
And so, if anyone from the ACL or who agrees with them is reading this, let me say, with as much kindness as possible, that I believe you are mistaken.
It is possible to say ‘my religion says that marriage is between one man and one woman only, to the exclusion of all others’ without committing vilification. (I also think that the Bible does not entirely support this statement, even if you stick to the New Testament and thus exclude all those polygamous Patriarchs of the Old Testament. Consider Timothy 3:2, which tells us that a church elder must be “blameless, the husband of one wife”. Why specify this if polygyny wasn’t still a thing, even in the Christian community? You can argue, certainly, that the Bible views monogamy, and perhaps even heterosexual monogamy as the ideal form of a relationship – Jesus (Matthew 19:5) talks about a man leaving his parents to cleave to his wife as one flesh, and Ephesians (5:32) explicitly makes this a metaphor for Christ and his church; but then on the other hand you have Paul (Corinthians 1:7) saying that being single and celibate is even better, so the argument is not entirely closed, I think.)
It is possible to say ‘my religion says that homosexuality is wrong’ without committing vilification. (I don’t think the Bible necessarily supports this statement either. Setting aside the fact that homosexuality as an identity, rather than as a specific act, often with pagan connotations, wasn’t really something understood by the Bible, there is also Peter’s vision in Acts 10, in which God wipes the slate clean of all the purity laws – and specifically tells Peter to welcome and include people who he would have previously viewed as impure. Slacktivist makes the argument for why this applies to LGBT people extremely well here.)
It is possible to say that marriage is a sacrament and that the state shouldn’t be able to define it without vilifying anyone – and I think that actually, this argument carries a bit more weight. Decoupling the legal aspects of marriage from the religious ones is a fine idea. (And, after all, we let all sorts of people get married in Australia, regardless of religion, and many of them don’t even marry in a church, so I’m not sure why gay people could not be simply another category of people who get married outside the church, or outside the churches that do not want them, without affecting anything.)
There are lots of other things you can safely say, too. You can say that marriage is intended for procreation (though this is a bit rough on the infertile). You can say that gay marriage weakens marriage (though I’ve never understood how that is supposed to work). You can say that children need a mother and a father, and that they suffer if they live with two same-sex parents (though actually, the evidence does not support this) (and also, don’t, whatever you do, start down the route of equating being gay with being a pedophile, because it is not true and what’s more that, my friend, really is vilification).
There is a big difference between saying that marriage equality is bad or wrong, and saying that gay people themselves are bad or wrong. The first statement is objecting to a law; the second is objecting to the person. You’re allowed to object to a law, especially one that is being put out there for the purpose of discussion. And yes, some people are going to be hurt by that, because the law is about something that is incredibly important to them, and they are allowed to feel hurt, just as you are allowed to say that you think the law is wrong.
But you don’t get to object to a whole class of people. And it’s when you start saying negative things about a whole class of people that you are likely to run afoul of anti-vilification laws. (I’d note, as a Christian, that this is also not a very loving thing to do. Which, since we are called to love our neighbours, is a bit of a problem.)
And yes, some people who feel hurt *just because you oppose marriage equality and even when you have not said a single nasty thing about gay people themselves* are going to say hurtful things about Christians. And you might feel that it’s unfair that they get to say nasty things about you when you don’t get to say nasty things about them.
(We are supposed to turn the other cheek, but nobody ever said that was easy.)
Look, if someone says something horrible about Christianity or Christians, yes, we are going to be hurt. And that’s OK – we are allowed to feel hurt, because that is hurtful. (And – bonus! – then we get to tell ourselves that blessed are those who are persecuted, etc, which is probably not precisely the use Jesus intended for that phrase, but hey, if it helps us to smile and just walk away and not engage, it’s a win.)
But the thing is, if someone says something awful about Christianity, we are still fundamentally pretty safe. As a religion, we are doing pretty well in Australia. We can build a church without people protesting it and trying to get it blocked by the council. We don’t need armed guards to protect Christian schools, or patrols to keep our churches safe from vandalism, and we don’t face attacks in the street because of what we wear. We get all our religious holidays automatically at work (or if we don’t, we get paid overtime), and don’t have to take extra leave to celebrate them. We can hold up traffic in the centre of Melbourne for two hours on Good Friday as 5,000 people process from church to church, holding a giant cross and singing hymns. Schools which provide religious education normally provide Christian religious education (and I have some opinions about that, but I’ll leave those for another day). We even have Christian prayer in Parliament.
In other words, if someone says something awful to us about our religion, it’s not, realistically, a threat to us. We are strong enough to take it. Frankly, we could lose quite a few of the things in the paragraph above and still be doing pretty well. We are not in any danger of being persecuted around here, even if marriage equality is passed into law.
The thing is, our LGBT brothers and sisters are not so lucky. If you say something awful to them, you’re not going to be the first to do so. You are probably going to be one of many, many voices telling them that they are wrong, that they should be ashamed, that they should hate themselves. And realistically, it is this sort of bullying that leads to the shamefully high rate of mental illness and suicides among our LGBT friends.
And it gets worse. Because if you say awful things about them, other people will hear you, and think it’s OK. Perhaps you would never dream of physically hurting another person, but there are unfortunately people out there who would, who will hear you say that people from a particular group are bad, or wrong, or that they hurt children (and that slander HAS to stop), and use that as justification for their own bad behaviour, from cyberbullying to physical violence. And you become a party to that bad behaviour.
Worst of all, the law as it currently stands is also sending a message that people who are gay are second-class citizens. Consider the ‘gay panic’ defense – this could not exist in a world where being gay carried no more prejudice than having fair hair. Marriage law, as it currently stands in Australia, feeds this inequality. It makes our LGBT brothers and sisters second class citizens in the eyes of the law, and this is a very dangerous thing.
Perhaps you are reading this and thinking, “Yes, that’s all very well, but homosexuality is a sin. I can’t be a party to gay marriage because it is condoning sin.”First, nobody is asking you to do that. Even if marriage equality passes, nobody is going to make your church marry gay couples. Churches already get to choose who they marry – Catholic churches don’t tend to marry Protestants, for example. This isn’t going to change. (And nobody is going to try to get married in your church just to make a political statement – really, who wants to feel unwelcome on their wedding day?)
And second – let me be blunt. A very common theme in the Book of Psalms is that the dead cannot sing God’s praises; nor can the dead be saved after their death. Unequal marriage laws are part of a culture of inequality that presents a very real danger to LGBT people in Australia and worldwide. Language which vilifies them presents a similar danger.
As Christians, we are called to love our neighbours. We must not be a party to endangering them, and in a very real sense, as long as these unequal laws stand, and as long as we support them, that is what we are doing.