Sunday, 4 December 2011

In Favour of Marriage Equality

Same-sex marriage is an issue on which reasonable people can disagree.
It's a mistake to automatically label opponents of same-sex marriage as homophobic bigots. It's just as cringe-inducing to hear proponents of marriage equality described as anti-family radical activists. Experience tells me that both sides of the discussion are populated with normal, well-adjusted people, trying to make reasonable decisions based upon the best information available to them.

I expect that you, dear reader, are such a person. Regardless of where you stand on the issue of marriage equality, I imagine that we share the same basic moral values and concerns. Hopefully that means we can have an amicable discussion, and that we're able to thoughtfully consider alternative views, and be willing to reformulate our opinions when logic and evidence requires us to do so.

I'm a supporter of marriage equality. I claim no special expertise or authority on the subject, but do consider myself reasonable and well-informed. The arguments in favour of same-sex marriage seem to me to be stronger and better supported than those against it. Of the latter, there are a few objections that I hear quite often, and would like to briefly address here.

Bad Objection #1 - Marriage has an important historical definition and we shouldn't change it.
History alone is not a good justification for law. Less than 50 years ago, the US repealed it's anti-miscegenation laws and redefined marriage to include interracial couples. This went against centuries of established tradition, and most would agree that the world is a better place for it.

The concept of marriage is neither narrow nor uniform. It can signify a social contract, a religious ordinance, a political arrangement, a historical tradition, an economic expediency and much else besides. It is frequently claimed that marriage is primarily a way of recognising the procreative potential of a man and woman, and that might be true. This does not, however, lead us to deny marriage to couples who are infertile, elderly, or choose not to have children.

As a society, we recognise that child-rearing is just one of the many reasons that a couple may choose to get married. For a lot of people, marriage is primarily a public declaration of a couple's mutual love and commitment to remain with each other. The legal status of a relationship is not tied to its ability to produce children.

Removing discrimination from marriage laws and making them more inclusive in the past did not destroy the institution's value, and it is hard to imagine why it would do so now.

Bad Objection #2 - Same-sex marriage runs counter to moral convictions of many people.
Most of us place great value on our individual freedom to think, speak, and act as we choose. While we willingly submit ourselves to restrictions that prevent us from doing harm, very few people regard the Government as having any further role in defining what ideas and behaviours are good or bad. The legal status of same-sex marriage is therefore not a commentary on its desirability or appropriateness, just its lack of harm.

Unless we have good reason to suppose that same sex marriage would cause harm to other people, we have no justifiable basis for preventing it under the law. Moral instruction is the responsibility of families and communities, not governments.

Bad Objection #3 - Marriage equality will have a harmful effect on freedom of speech and religion.
I know many people who believe that marriage equality will lead to churches being forced to keep silent about homosexuality, or be legally required to perform wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples. This is simply untrue. Section 116 of the Australian Constitution safeguards the free exercise of religion and the attendant rights of expression. The rights of private religious organisations in this country would be unaffected by changes to the scope of the legal definition of marriage.

The best way to protect churches is to commit more fully to the principles of free thought, speech and action. If anything, marriage equality serves to reinforce those freedoms, not threaten them.

A parting thought...
I said at the start that there are reasonable people on both sides of this debate. I really believe that. There are also a lot of people who simply aren't that interested in the subject, or haven't thought about it very deeply, or regard it as a trivial annoyance. This is an issue, however, that directly affects the lives of real people. It's much more than an academic debate, so whatever stance you take on this, make sure that your reasons are good.

If you oppose marriage equality, and one or more of the objections above were part of your justification, I hope I've given you pause to think. I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

1 comment:

  1. Point #1

    History is not necessarily a good justification for law - but it does have a strong influence on it. You seem to be ignoring here the fact that "marriage" stands for more than just a "legally recognised union" for a lot of people on society. The dictionary definition alone is not enough to define a complex sociological viewpoint such as this.

    I think it is a weak argument to assume that because society does not necessarily deny same-sex couples child rearing capability that somehow society also should/could allow the same privileges in marriage. I am interested in your thoughts on "equal love" and how redefining marriage has an influence on the dynamics of the "family institution". You have chosen to largely bypass both discussions for some reason.

    Your last paragraph here heavily implies that "discrimination" exists in marriage law. I'm not sure this is the case. There are plenty of laws that are designed to target certain behaviours, practises or institutions. A lot of those are based on history and societal impact.

    If I decided that I want to marry my sister, for example - why could I not? Is this also discrimination?

    Point #2

    So what do you define as "harm"? If women choose to be involved in a polygamous marriage, or if a man was to choose to be involved in a polyandrous marriage, would these be harmful to anyone else? Why then, should same-sex marriage be treated any differently? Because there are more homosexual partners than polygamous/polyandrous relationships?

    Point #3

    I agree that it does nothing to harm freedom of speech, religion etc but by legalising something that the religious body is largely against you are putting pressure on religions to adapt their belief systems or face criticism. This would inevitably happen, hopefully the larger body can withstand this kind of pressure but it puts them in an unfair position. So really, by adopting the practise perhaps you are "creating equality" in some places and "removing equality" in others.

    There are so many more issues associated with this that your comments do not address. Many minority based issues affect the lives of real people, so does this. The biggest vice is how on earth this one is somehow more important. To me, the war against drugs is sliding under the radar of the political agenda because same-sex marriage is such a hot topic. From an "impact" perspective, which one would be more detrimental if ignored?