Marriage Equality: What this survey isn’t about

Lots of people seem to be afraid right now.

My friends who are gay or lesbian are afraid of being attacked for who they are.  They are afraid for their children, for their friends, for young people who are LTBGIQ who are watching this debate and seeing it as a referendum on their humanity.

My friends (and yes, I have a few) who are on the no side are afraid too.  They are afraid of being attacked for what they believe. They are afraid for their children, for their friends, for young people who are vulnerable who they fear will be harmed if the law changes.

Fear seems to be something that both sides have in common.

There are some important differences though.  For my gay and lesbian friends, these fears are not new and they are, by and large, grounded in experience; the experience of being rejected and hurt – sometimes physically – for who they are.  And that experience is a lot more intense right now.  It’s not a coincidence that psychologists and support lines are being overwhelmed by calls from young LGBTIQ people at present.

For my friends who are against marriage equality, it’s a bit different.  While we Christians love a good persecution narrative (“Blessed are ye, when men shall revile you, and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake”, after all), most Christians in Australia are not in the habit of feeling actively threatened in their daily lives.  If I wear a cross to work, I’m not going to get weird looks or comments.  And while, yes, certain atheists of my acquaintance do love to tell us how stupid we are for believing the things we believe (often without taking the time to actually establish whether we believe the particular things they are discussing), I can’t say I feel particularly persecuted by this. Persecution requires someone to actually have the power to make my life worse, after all.

I think it is important to acknowledge that for no voters, their fears are not grounded in the past, but in the future.  Yes, marriage equality has happened in other countries, and there have been a lot of scare campaigns around what happened in these countries as a result, but most of us have not grown up in a world that rejects and physically attacks us for our beliefs.  The fears of no voters are not imaginary – I won’t claim that yes voters are perfect snowflakes who never behave badly – but they are largely about things that have not yet come to pass – and which may never do so.

I’ll be talking mostly about and to my fellow Christians in this blog post, because the people I know who are against marriage equality have, by and large, reached that conclusion because of their faith.  I’ve reached the opposite conclusion because of my faith – and I’ll write about that elsewhere! – and it’s very possible that you are shaking your head at me right now and thinking that I’m clearly not saved, and that’s fine.  But I hope you will keep reading, because I think that as Christians we do owe it to ourselves to act with integrity and with honesty, and that includes being honest with ourselves.  And a lot of the no campaign that I have seen has been based on conflating things that are true with things that are either not true or have nothing to do with this vote.

I don’t think this does anyone any favours, and I don’t think it’s a good look for Christianity.

If you are a likely no voter reading this, I’m going to assume that you are acting in good faith.  I’m going to assume that you are not a hateful person, or a cruel person, or someone who wants gay people to suffer.  I’m going to assume that you really do believe that voting Yes will be detrimental to society.

I’ll be honest – I think you’re terribly wrong.  But I’m not here to yell at you or be mean.

I’m here to ask you to separate out what is really true from what is still a matter of conjecture.  I’m here to ask you to vote for or against the measure being put before us, not a random collection of things that tend to get associated with that measure,  I’m here to ask you to vote with love and integrity, not with fear.

What is the postal survey about?

The question we are being asked is whether we think the marriage act should be changed to allow same sex couples to marry.

That’s it.

I know you probably know that already, but it seems to be getting so mixed up with hundreds of other issues that it seems worth stating again.

There is nothing on the survey about Safe Schools, nothing about whether gay people can adopt or undergo IVF or have children together, nothing about making churches marry gay people, nothing about marrying multiple people, children, dogs or bridges, and nothing about making it illegal to use the words ‘he’ or ‘she’ (that last one boggles the mind, I have to say – I can sort of see how we got to the other ones from here, but abolishing all gender is a whole other step away from reality).

All we are being asked, really, is whether we think a same sex couple should be allowed to have their relationship formally and legally recognised in the same way that heterosexual couples can.  Which, right now, they unfortunately are not.  Yes, there are registered relationships in some states (not all), but these are not recognised overseas – or even, reliably, in Australia.  (The advantage of a marriage certificate is that everyone knows what it means, and you are never going to find yourself arguing with a nurse or a funeral director about whether you really do have a right to see your partner.)

Is there something other than marriage that could achieve the same thing?  Perhaps, but nobody has suggested anything useful so far, and in the meantime, people are being hurt.  And the experience in the US has shown that ‘separate but equal’ tends to emphasise separation, but rarely leads to equality.

Will churches be forced to marry gay couples?

No.  I feel really, really confident saying this because churches can already refuse to marry anyone they like, without legal consequences. They can refuse to marry people who haven’t undergone their church-sponsored counselling program, or they can refuse to marry people who are not Christian, or who are not of the particular denomination represented by that church. The Catholic church refused to marry my parents inside the church because my mother was Anglican.

Churches can even refuse to marry a straight couple because they support same sex marriage.

Nobody wants this to change.  LGBTIQ people don’t want to be married by people who think that their relationships are wrong.  Politicians from all sides of politics have said that churches will be able to make their own rules about who they marry.  This is not something we have to be scared of.

We are not being asked whether same sex couples should be allowed to marry in churches.  We are just being asked if they should be allowed to marry.

It’s worth mentioning that marriage in Australia is not solely the prerogative of religious institutions.  We’ve had civil celebrants since the 1970s, and their marriages are just as legal as those that take place in churches.  (In fact, something like 60% of Australia are married by civil celebrants, not priests. Their marriages have nothing to do with the church.)

If same-sex couples are allowed to marry, it will be up to individual churches to decide whether they will celebrate these weddings.  The Quakers certainly will.  The Catholics certainly won’t.

We are voting on the legal institution of marriage, not the religious sacrament.

What about freedom of religion?

Every version of a marriage equality bill so far includes quite extensive exemptions for religious institutions. You can read the exposure draft from earlier this year here, and you can read the Bill proposed by Dean Smith, Warren Entsch, Trevor Evans, Tim Wilson and Trent Zimmerman here.

In every version of the Bill, ministers are explicitly granted permission to refuse to marry people on any grounds they choose.  The exposure draft includes this wording (which is echoed in the proposal by Smith & co):

Religious bodies and organisations may refuse to make facilities available or provide goods or services
  1. A religious body or a religious organisation may, despite any law (including this Part), refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage, if:
    1. the refusal is because the marriage is not the union of a man and a woman; and
    2. the refusal:
      1. conforms to the doctrines, tenets or beliefs of the religion of the religious body or religious organisation; or
      2.  is necessary to avoid injury to the religious susceptibilities of adherents of that religion.
  2. Subsection (1) applies to facilities made available, and goods and services provided, whether for payment or not.
  3. This section does not limit the grounds on which a religious body or a religious organisation may refuse to make a facility available, or to provide goods or services, for the purposes of the solemnisation of a marriage, or for purposes reasonably incidental to the solemnisation of a marriage

So your church can legally refuse to marry same-sex couples, host their reception on your property, or cater for it.  Nobody is going to prosecute you for this.  (People might say rude things, and that’s no fun, but then, people whose feelings are hurt tend to feel angry and want to lash out.  The point is, they can’t legally do anything more than say rude things.  They have no real power to harm you here.)

I’d also ask you gently to consider that for some Christians, their freedom to practice their religion is actually prevented by the current law.  The Quakers, for example, believe that ‘Marriage is the Lord’s work and we are but witnesses‘ and since 2010, they have celebrated marriages between same sex couples. But they can’t register them according to their sincerely-held religious beliefs because of the current wording in the Marriage Act.

(Honestly, and I know this sounds self-serving, but if I were really worried about religious freedom, I’d be voting yes twice as hard, and pushing for the current government to legislate marriage equality immediately.  We are going to have it sooner or later, and judging by the various bits of test legislation we’ve seen so far, the current government is likely to put in far broader protections for religious freedom than any Labor government would.)

Will nobody think of the bakers?

Also known as, what about those poor bakers who do not want to decorate gay wedding cakes.

And no, none of the versions of the amended Act of Parliament that I have seen give exemptions to bakers.  There are exemptions to discrimination law for religious institutions, but not for private individuals. Christian bakers don’t get to refuse services to gay couples any more than gay bakers can refuse their services to Christian couples.  Essentially, Australian law feels that if you are in a service profession, you have to provide that service to everyone.  You can’t refuse to serve black people, or disabled people, or atheists, and you can’t refuse to serve gay people either.  But they also can’t refuse to serve you.

I think the difficulty here is that for many Christians, being black is something you are born, but being gay is something you choose.  But research does not back up that assertion.  People really are wired in particular ways, and that is just who they are.  Can they then choose to be celibate?  Yes, but that’s a pretty big ask, and should be something chosen by an individual, not imposed on them from the outside.  And – look, I’m hoping you aren’t sitting there thinking about slippery slopes to pedophilia, but I also know that there are some really weird memes in conservative circles around this.  So I’d like to draw your attention to this very brief article about how conservatives and liberals see sexual ethics.  It’s not being rude about either side, but I think it’s a pretty good explanation for why we often find ourselves talking past each other on this issue.

In terms of how this relates to the current survey, I’m not sure it’s going to make a lot of difference.  I mean, yes, without same sex marriage, there will be no wedding cakes celebrating this, but I know plenty of LGBTIQ people who have had big commitment ceremony parties which involve cake.  And I’m pretty sure bakers would not have been a protected class for those.  I think this is a side issue.  And I think it’s something we have to live with unless we want to grant other people the right to refuse service to us.  Fair is fair, after all!

I’d also like to add that anti-discrimination law has included LGBTIQ people since 2013.  And that churches have been exempt from it for just as long.  A change to the Marriage Act won’t change this, and keeping the Marriage Act the same won’t roll it back.

What about freedom of speech?

I’ve seen some churches get very worried that they will be prosecuted and indeed persecuted for preaching Leviticus from the pulpit, or for preaching that marriage should be defined as between one man and one woman.  I’ve delved into a few articles to look at this.

The Australian Human Rights Commission tells us that:

  1. Everyone shall have the right to hold opinions without interference.
  2. Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.
  3. The exercise of the rights provided for in paragraph 2 of this article carries with it special duties and responsibilities. It may therefore be subject to certain restrictions, but these shall only be such as are provided by law and are necessary:
    ( a )   For respect of the rights or reputations of others;
    ( b )   For the protection of national security or of public order (ordre public ), or of public health or morals.

And the Australian Law Reform Commission adds that:

Commonwealth anti-discrimination laws may interfere with freedom of speech by making unlawful certain forms of discrimination, intimidation and harassment that can be manifested in speech or other forms of expression. At the same time, such laws may protect freedom of speech, by preventing a person from being victimised or discriminated against by reason of expressing, for example, certain political or religious views. 

Effectively, there are two sets of rights in play.  On the one hand, there is the right to express yourself freely.  On the other, there is the right not to be subject to discrimination and harrassment.

I’m not a lawyer, so I’m not particularly aware of cases around this sort of thing.  But I’d like to draw your attention to this article by David Marr.  It’s a little unfriendly, but it does point out the fact that in the battle between freedom of speech and the right to say potentially offensive things on the basis of your religion, free speech has been consistently winning in Australia.  Yes, Christians have been accused of discrimination and hate speech.  But they have all won.  If you can’t stomach David Marr, and I really can’t believe I’m saying this, but here’s a link to a piece from the Gospel Coalition which is unexpectedly balanced on the subject.  And here’s a piece about free speech with regard to religiously-motivated hate mail.

Bottom line seems to be that yes, individuals may say horrible things to you if you exercise your freedom of speech and religion in ways that offend them.  But as long as you aren’t calling for people to actually harm others, the courts are going to be on your side.  The bar is set pretty high here.

And once again, I really want to draw to your attention that everything I’ve written about here relates to existing laws regarding free speech and discrimination. The same sex marriage vote is not going to affect these.

What about Safe Schools?

Funding is about to run out for that, except in Victoria.  I have a lot of opinions about Safe Schools.  You probably do, too.  But whatever they are, this vote has absolutely nothing to do with Safe Schools, so let’s leave this one out of the equation.

But don’t children have the right to both a mother and a father?

You’re probably going to disagree with me here, but I think that what children need most is to be raised in a home by parents who love them and can care for them.  I don’t think the gender of the parents matters that much.  I do think it’s good for a child to know its biological parents.  I studied genetic counselling, so I am all over the right to understand one’s genetic heritage!  But I also think it’s good for children to have the security of knowing that if one parent is gone, the other parent will be able to look after them, which is not always the case for same sex couples at present.

There have been a lot of studies discussing how children do when raised by same-sex couples.  This article gives a pretty good overview, and concludes that, basically, they do just fine.  I’d add that children are not raised in a vacuum – they are still surrounded by role models of the opposite sex.  And of course, plenty of children live with only one parent.

Honestly, I find this argument hard to talk about usefully, because I have friends who are a lesbian couple with a child, and I know how hurt they have been by the public discourse around this.  I think I might leave it be for now, except to point out that children of same sex couples already exist. Marriage equality will not necessarily effect them at all, but if it does, I would expect the effect to be to grant them more stability in their family lives, and I think that’s a good thing.

I’d also like to add that not all marriages produce children.  Mine hasn’t.  Affording same sex couples the right to marry does not automatically impact the rights of children at all.  But if it does, I believe that the impact would be positive.

A few more thoughts

I think Christians around the western world are getting very anxious at the moment about religious persecution, but I think it’s very important to remind ourselves that a loss of privilege is not the same as oppression.  Right now in Australia, fewer people than ever before identify as Christian.  Yet most of our politicians are Christian, all the big Christian holy days are public holidays, and you can go to any town in Australia and find a church.  Usually multiple churches, in fact.  If your child has religious education at school, the odds are very high that they are taught by Christian teachers and that they learn primarily (and often exclusively) about Christianity.  I don’t know about other cities, but in Melbourne every year, Christians get to stop traffic for half a day on Good Friday so that they can process around the city with a cross, singing hymns, praying, and hearing readings from the Bible.  And it’s impossible to go through December without hearing Christmas carols whenever you walk into a shop.

Christianity is still very much alive in public spaces in Australia.  It is still a dominant force in shaping our culture.  And that isn’t going to change any time soon, I think.

All we are losing in this country is the right, if you can call it that, to assume that everyone else believes what we believe, and to force our beliefs on others.  And really, that is as it should be – faith cannot be compelled, and at best, forcing people to comply will simply give us the trappings of Christianity.  This doesn’t help them or anyone else.

If we are worried about the decline of Christianity in Australia, then surely the best thing we can do is live our lives with integrity and love and openness, so that we become a light for others to follow.  Too many people now associate Christianity with child abuse scandals, with judgment, and with a weird obsession with the sex lives of others, because those are the loudest voices in the media right now. We need to be counterexamples.

As for marriage equality, I really do believe it is inevitable in this country.  And yes, I think that’s a good thing.  But it will happen sooner or later, regardless of what you or I think of it.

If you believe, honestly and sincerely, that same sex marriage is against God’s plan, then yes, I suppose you have to vote no.  I really wish you wouldn’t – I think that God is more inclusive and compassionate that you give him credit for, and I agree with Catholic priest Frank Brennan that it is for the common good – but if that is really what you believe, then I don’t see how else you can vote but no.

But if you feel that same sex marriage might be OK, but are worried that it would be the start of a slippery slope – if you are voting no not because of same sex marriage per se, but because you are worried about Safe Schools, or same-sex couples having access to adoption or IVF, or churches being forced to marry same-sex couples – I urge you to reconsider.  None of these things are on the survey.  None of these things are going to change because of the survey.  Some of them have happened already, some of them might happen, and some of them definitely won’t happen, but none of them will be affected by changes to marriage law.

All voting yes will do is indicate that you think same sex couples should be permitted to marry.

And that’s OK.

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