Wednesday, August 01, 2012

Marriage is not being ‘redefined’

As we work to enact marriage equality in New Zealand, we’ll hear a lot of nonsense from opponents. We know from overseas experience that their arguments will include misstatements, misleading assertions and, sadly, outright falsehoods. None of that can be allowed to remain unchallenged.

The most frequent falsehood used by our opponents is to declare that marriage equality means “redefining” marriage. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The question is simple: Should government allow loving same-gender couples to make the same legal and public commitment to each other as opposite-gender couples can? That’s it. This is simply about allowing all loving adult couples to legally and publicly commit to each other.

Nearly all of the opposition to allowing loving same-gender couples to have this legal commitment to each other is based on religious objection, and that’s fine: People are entitled to have and express their religious views, regardless of whether many—or any—other people agree with them.

The good news for such religious people is that absolutely nothing will change for them. Churches will still be able to refuse to perform weddings for any couples they don’t approve of, and the state has nothing to say about that. In fact, it’s none of government’s business who a church performs weddings for.

Think of it this way: Different Christian churches have different views on baptism: Some baptise infants, others only baptise adults. Government doesn’t get involved in telling churches who they can baptise, and doesn’t declare who is or is not baptised. In the same way, government won’t tell churches what couples they must perform weddings for.

However, the fact that a particular church may abhor homosexuality generally, or may simply reject allowing same-gender couples to marry, should not prevent other churches from performing weddings for same-gender couples. For government to prevent such churches from performing weddings for same-gender couples because other churches disapprove is blatant religious discrimination, and it’s no different than government telling Christian churches who they can and cannot baptise.

This whole issue is easily muddled because the distinction between civil marriage and religious weddings is often blurred. Marriage is a legal and governmental function, carrying a whole bunch of rights and responsibilities. When a couple gets married, they make a legal commitment to each other that’s instantly understood and recognised by government, the courts and public institutions such as hospitals and schools. It is a civil, secular matter.

The religious marriage rite, commonly called a wedding, is the business of churches, which they alone regulate. Government authorises churches to perform legal marriages on its behalf, but the authority to do so comes from the state; the church’s authority to perform a religious wedding is based on that church’s particular beliefs and has nothing to do with government. After all, no one is legally required to have a church wedding and, in fact, plenty of people choose to be married in an entirely secular, non-religious ceremony.

So, marriage equality simply means that government is recognising, valuing and encouraging commitment of two individuals who love each other. That’s not a “redefinition”, it’s in inclusive reaffirmation.

I’ll elaborate on many of the topics raised in this post, along with delving into plenty of others raised by our opponents, in future posts. All of these will be grouped under a new tag, NZ Marriage Equality. Next up: Why civil unions aren’t enough.

1 comment:

Drew said...

Well said, Arthur.

The distinction between civil and religious marriage is the key and the crux of this whole thing.

I appreciate your ability to remain polite in presenting the idea that religions would be able to maintain their exclusionary practices in which ceremonies they themselves perform in a world where civil marriage includes all people, but your decorum and civility on that matter is something I do not have capacity for.

Bigotry, for that is all this is about, angers me enough that I often fail to keep a 'level head' when speaking or writing on this subject. Calmer voices like yours are needed - thanks for this.