This post answers questions about the same-sex marriage plebiscite.
What is the argument for same-sex marriage?
The argument for same-sex marriage is that it discriminates against same-sex attracted people. The structural exclusion of a group of people from such a core social institution as marriage is said to be unfair and hurtful.
A secondary argument is that it is claimed that allowing same-sex couples to marry will make no difference to anyone else.
Why haven’t we had same-sex marriage in the past? What has changed?
Our society has been structured around the idea that family relationships are built upon the nuclear family, consisting of a man, a women and their biological children. Marriage has been the recognised pathway into a nuclear family, and the way to establish networks of related people such as uncles, aunts, grandparents, sisters, brothers and cousins.
However, to assume that the nuclear family is ‘normal’ or somehow ‘basic’ to society is increasingly said to be oppressive because it is ‘heteronormative’ and ‘heterosexist’. This bias in favour of heterosexuals is said to be hurtful to all who don’t fit the majority pattern. Opposition to heteronormativity is what binds LFBTI together as a ‘community’.
How do ‘vote yes’ people understand marriage?
Most ‘vote yes’ supporters emphasise the romantic aspect of marriage as a loving relationship between two people. They reject the heteronormative character of marriage in the past as something harmful. They prefer to say as little as possible about the function of marriage in relation to procreation and raising children.
How do ‘vote no’ supporters understand marriage?
Most ‘vote no’ supporters see marriage as a building block of families. They tend to consider that for a child to be raised by their biological parents is ideal and should be supported by the state, and the institution of marriage has been established and maintained in law as a way to do that.
Isn’t society evolving and marriage equality is a natural part of that evolution? Aren’t opponents of marriage equality stuck in the past and refusing to evolve?
It is a mistake to assume that societies are getting better. Sometimes they can get worse (consider Germany under the Nazis). Some social changes are good and should be embraced. Other changes can be bad.
Do all people who advocate LGBTI rights support same-sex marriage?
Supporters of LGBTI rights hold a variety of views about marriage. Some reject marriage altogether, as a heteronormative and therefore oppressive institution. Melbourne Academic Meagan Tyler has argued that the death of marriage is the path to equality. (See also Ryan Conrad on ‘Not the marrying kind’ and David Vakilis on ‘Marriage Rights’). Some activists allow for marriage equality as a staging post along the path to the destruction of marriage (see e.g. Michelangelo Signorile on the US Defense of Marriage Act). Some don't want to change marriage, or do away with it, but dislike their identity being reduced to their sexual preferences, and distance themselves from the same-sex marriage push for this reason. Obviously there are also many who support marriage equality.
Do churches have a right to tell society what to do?
Church interference is not what opposition to same-sex marriage is about. Australian government processes are democratic, or they should be. Everyone has a right to express their views about political issues. Christians have as much right to be involved in the political process, to seek the well-being of the broader society as they understand it. They have as much right to hold and propagate political opinions as anyone else.
It is not just religious people who object to same-sex marriage. Australian church attendance runs at around 15%, so any argument against same-sex marriage based on religious authority would only appeal to a minority of the population, and the number of people concerned or uncertain about same-sex marriage is more than double the total number of church-goers.
Does the institution of marriage as administered by the Australian government conform to Biblical or Christian understandings?
In some respects it does. In some respects it doesn’t. For example no-fault divorce and the de-stigmatisation of adultery moved marriage away from a Biblical understanding. Also the widespread use of contraception and abortion have weakened the link between sex and procreation, which is part of a Biblical understanding of marriage.
What is a Christian understanding of marriage?
The Church of England Prayer Book, following Biblical teachings, gives three purposes for marriage: i) for the procreation and nurture of children, ii) as a remedy against sin (i.e. prohibited sex), and iii) for ‘mutual society, help and comfort’ between two people. This already differs from the state’s understanding of marriage in respect of (ii), since adultery is no longer legally stigmatised in Australia. The introduction of same-sex marriage would arguably weaken the role of (i) in the official Australian understanding of marriage, and move the state’s definition of marriage further away from a Christian understanding. Advocates of same-sex marriage value and emphasise (iii): love between two people.
Why does same-sex marriage have implications for religious freedom and freedom of speech?
This is connected to the notion that heteronormativity is oppressive and demands for the denormalisation of heterosexual relationships. Introducing same-sex marriage aligns with a much bigger project of abolishing heteronormativity, and it will undoubtedly give added momentum to this process. One area that will be affected by the introduction of same-sex marriage is sex education in schools. There will be pressure to treat same-sex orientation and sexual practices as normal, right down to the early primary years, and teachers who object, for example to providing information to young children on same-sex sexual practices, could be discriminated against, and could even lose their jobs. A Jewish School in London was ‘failed’ by the UK Department of Education for not teaching state-mandated content about homosexuality. One early warning symptom of the advance of the program to abolish heteronormativity in Australia is the Safe Schools program. There are numerous examples around the world of people being targeted in their workplaces or businesses because of their beliefs relating to same-sex relationships, with many cases emerging in the US, Canada and the UK of people even losing their livelihoods for the sake of their religious beliefs about marriage.
Some have said that it is mischievous to link same-sex marriage to Safe Schools, but in reality they are connected through the broader social agenda to eradicate heteronormativity. Marriage equality will remove what is perhaps the only remaining state-entrenched support for heteronormativity. Introducing same-sex marriage will lend momentum to this agenda, including increasing discrimination and harassment against people who for religious or other reasons of conscience, support heteronormativity.
It is disturbing that advocates of the ‘yes’ vote keep insisting that the change to our marriage laws will only have positive effects, and only impact on same-sex attracted people, despite overwhelming and well-documented evidence from other jurisdictions that religious people suffer increasing discrimination for their religious views on marriage wherever same-sex marriage has been introduced. This stubborn refusal to engage with facts of how these issues have progressed in other juridictions sends a powerful signal that ‘yes’ vote supporters either don't care about the prospect of increasing religious discrimination, or that they would welcome the persecution of those who disagree with their views. There is a view that ‘religious privilege’ needs to be overthrown, and to achieve this it will be considered righteous to stigmatise dissenters.
It is also concerning that the Australian Government has not released a thought-through model of how to protect religious freedoms and freedom of speech, if same-sex marriage is introduced. This is a worrying sign of indifference or ignorance about this issue.
How will same-sex marriage impact clergy as marriage celebrants?
Despite the lobbying of some political activists, it seems virtually certain that clergy will be exempt from being forced to conduct same-sex marriages, at least for the foreseeable future. In any case it is easy and simple for clergy to resign their state marriage celebrant licenses: there is nothing in the Bible or in church regulations that require pastors to be state marriage celebrants. In the UK many pastors have already resigned their celebrant licenses to avoid any potential legal issues. (The Scandinavian jurisdictions where politicians have been calling for clergy not to be exempt from anti-discrimination laws in respect of same-sex marriages are different from the Australian situation, because the Scandinavian countries have state-controlled churches paid for by taxes levied by the state.)
Why vote ‘no’ in the postal survey?
1. Evidence from several other jurisdictions shows same-sex marriage is not just something that affects same-sex attracted people. It gives an impetus to campaigns to eradicate heteronormativity, and this results in discrimination against people for their religious beliefs. Once same-sex marriage is introduced, some of the activists who are now arguing that only same-sex couples will be affected by this change will be pushing to wind back whatever religious exemptions there are, and promoting legal instruments which cause religious people to be insulted, degraded and humiliated based on their religious convictions about same-sex marriage.
2. The introduction of same-sex marriage will give momentum to programs such as Safe Schools, which seek to take sexual education out of the hands of parents, and normalise homosexual sexual practices among young people.
3. The connection of marriage with procreation is a core issue. Introducing same-sex marriage will weaken this connection. Procreation of children naturally results from heterosexual relationships, but not from homo-sexual relationships, and it is arguably this which justifies the state’s having any role in regulating marriages. Regulation only makes sense because of the connection of marriage with procreation and the formation of families. (This is not to say the relationships of couples without children are any less dignified or valued.) The redefinition of marriage to include same-sex relationships will move the concept of marriage away from being a foundation of family relationships, and more towards that of a romantic arrangement between individuals. This is a dilution of the concept of marriage which will have deep long-term consequences. It will undermine the rationale for other features of marriage, such as exclusivity and life-long commitment. If marriage were just about love, the state should get out of the marriage business altogether, as it would surely have no business telling people how they should love, or who they should or shouldn’t love, and have no business privileging life-long loving relationships over others. But state-regulated marriage is about more than this. It is also about supporting the nuclear family, for the well-being of society.