Marriage equality – why is it important for faith communities?

AUSTRALIA HAS VOTED in favour of marriage equality for LGBTI people – the results were announced on Wednesday and greeted with joy and expectation that the law will now change to make it so.

As my husband is Australian, I have followed the campaign with interest. We had a civil partnership in May 2012 – the first to be registered in a place of worship in the UK – and we converted this to marriage two years ago this month, but when we are in Australia our rights as a couple are currently not recognized. If we were to move there under the present law, I might get a visa if I could prove a long-term committed relationship, but once there I would not have the same legal rights as if I were married to an Australian woman – in particular, there is no guarantee that I would be recognized as next of kin in a medical emergency.

So while it is good that 79.5 per cent of eligible Australians took part in the postal survey on the question:

‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’

it is important to note that it is not a legally binding referendum like that held in the Republic of Ireland in May 2015 – if it were, it would be compulsory to vote as it is for all Australian elections, there would have been greater regulation against fraudulent voting, and the Government would be obliged to change the constitution accordingly.

The Australian Senate vetoed a legally binding referendum because they could foresee a negative, divisive campaign which could harm LGBTI Australians – and they were right, as this analysis of the campaign explains:

‘I had to wake up in the morning to see the most disgusting comments from people on social media – some of them public figures in the “no” campaign – and feel like a lesser human being, every day of this campaign.’

Meanwhile, echoing the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s words at the press conference announcing the postal vote:

‘Australians are able, and have demonstrated, that they can have a respectful discussion’

this author collated a non-exhaustive list of incidents from all sides of the campaign showing

’65 Times The Same-Sex Marriage Debate Was Definitely Not Respectful’

What happens now is unclear – on Thursday the Australian parliament began a debate to work out the next steps. There are concerns that calls for legal protection of the religious freedom of those who do not support same-sex marriage may delay the process.

We have been through a similar debate in the UK Parliament – as a result the Church of England and the Church In Wales secured what became known as the ‘quadruple lock‘:

  • ensuring that no religious organization would be required to perform same-sex weddings;
  • allowing religious organizations to opt in and perform same-sex weddings;
  • amending the Equality Act 2010 to protect religious organizations and ministers from being sued for refusing to perform same-sex weddings; and
  • denying the Church of England and the Church in Wales power to opt in on the same basis as other organizations without additional primary legislation.

So while the debate was won in Parliament in favour of same-sex civil marriage, the argument continues in faith communities to this day, with no end in sight.

It’s important to note here that religious freedom goes both ways – some faith communities, such as the Quakers and Unitarians, wish to be free to perform same-sex weddings, so the law allows this if the governing body of that faith community agrees, or devolves the decision to local communities, as is the case for the United Reformed Church. So those who seek protection of their right to refuse same-sex marriage need to recognize that they don’t have the right to stand in the way of those who support and wish to celebrate it.

Soon after the Australian campaign and postal survey began in September, I was asked to speak on a panel about marriage and faith as part of the ‘Belief and Beyond Belief’ festival at London’s South Bank Centre. I was one of three on the panel, along with

Chairing the debate was Arifa Akbar, a Muslim journalist and Head of Content at the publisher Unbound.

In advance of the event I shared the question in various Facebook groups to see how others would respond and how that might inform my answer. Here is the question:

Why is gay marriage, and its recognition by your faith community, so important in the fight for equality and the battle against homophobia?

Several people pointed out that the term ‘gay marriage’ was inadequate, not least because it doesn’t recognise that bisexual peple may choose to marry a life partner of the same sex, and it doesn’t recognise people living with intersex conditions and the growing awareness of gender diversity.

Here are some of the other responses I received:

  • Same-sex marriage is the same as any marriage. It the joining together of two people in a faithful. loving lifelong relationship.
  • In our faith community it is important as it goes to the heart of the gospel – that everyone is included in God’s unconditional love.
  • Faith communities might not like equal marriage but by accepting that it is on the statue books instead of continuing fighting a fight they lost four years ago [in England and Wales] it demonstrates that they recognise where society is and hopefully this will help them engage with society better.
  • Not having marriage equality makes gay relationships somehow lesser. And anything officially labelled lesser is assumed to have a lower moral value. And having a lower moral value means it’s OK to judge and to discriminate against people and to bully them.
    It provides the theoretical framework for poor treatment and it gives homophobia the cloak of being nothing but a perfectly normal way of seeing people differently. The first step towards eradicating homophobia is by removing its legally sanctioned cloak of respectability.
  • The fight is not against homophobia, it is against ingrained heteronormativity. Even accepting heterosexuals draw the line at gay marriage, based on poor understanding of Scripture and so called ‘tradition.’ It is a human rights issue, regarding God-given relationship and partnership for life; it is not an argument unhealthily based on who sticks which sexual organ where, or who can / who cannot procreate.
  • As a hetero married woman I think equal marriage is good for straight folks too. That’s coz it undermines any lingering gender based hierarchical assumptions about marriage and therefore makes my ‘straight’ marriage more equal.
  •  In UK law there are two categories of marriage now. ‘Marriage’ is still defined as between a man and a woman, and ‘same sex marriage’ is defined as just that. So interestingly, assuming you were married in the UK, you technically have a different category of marriage to a straight couple, though that doesn’t show on the certificate.
  • Hopefully this isn’t too controversial but for me the issue of marriage is secondary to acceptance and inclusion. The church has no authority to stop me from marrying, but it can stop me from being fully a part of itself. Having said that I would like my friends who work for churches to be allowed to marry and I think allowing them to do so will make sexuality less toxic in the church in general because it will stop being a dirty little secret.
  • Important to understand issue is equal marriage, still not there for trans couples where spousal veto applies.
  • It’s about respecting the dignity of creatures made in the image and likeness of God, God who is love.
  • Marriage is not about religion. Atheists get married.
    Marriage is not about reproduction. The infertile get married.
    Marriage is about love. That’s it.
    And that’s beautiful.
  • Let your love shine through 🙏🏼

Some (including a commenter from Australia) asked if the debate would be recorded, and if so would I share it? Sadly it wasn’t, so this is the next best thing.

Here is my three minute response with which I opened the debate:

The issue is wider than ‘gay marriage’ – media shorthand that doesn’t recognise the diversity of sexual orientation and gender identity. ‘Same-sex marriage’ is a broader term, used even by opponents who don’t accept ‘gay’ as a valid term. It also recognises that bisexual people may make a permanent, faithful, stable commitment to a partner of the same sex.

I prefer ‘marriage equality’ – equal access to marriage for two consenting adults – this is more inclusive for people who are trans, intersex or of non-binary gender.

As our understanding of the wonderful diversity of humanity grows, so our language needs to evolve to keep pace with it. Faith communities struggle to recognise new and deeper insights revealed through reason, experience and scientific inquiry, especially around sexuality and gender. The debate around marriage has become the focus, when a wider discussion of what it means to be human, gendered and sexual beings could help us form a deeper understanding of commitment to a permanent, faithful, stable relationship which is inclusive of all people.

I believe ‘marriage’ is the currently the only adequate word to describe the depth of the pair bond between two people, irrespective of gender. Our language has not evolved a more universally acceptable alternative.

When I proposed to my husband, I didn’t ask him to ‘civilly partner’ me! When we wrote our own civil partnership service, we carefully avoided language associated with marriage, as marriage was not available to same-sex couples in 2012, and we were aware because of the Government’s consultation on marriage how contentious it would be.

When we became the first couple in the UK to register a civil partnership in a place of worship, we received media attention. The local paper wrote a good account, then sold our story to the Daily Mail, which reported it inaccurately as a marriage, encouraging hundreds of online readers to judge our relationship and faith in irrational and offensive comments.

Our faith communities must speak for social justice, not contribute to injustice. Sadly, they fall short. LGBTI people are accustomed to hearing they ‘fall short of God’s ideal’, often accompanied by experiences of shame and rejection. The Stonewall School Report 2017 shows:

  • LGBT pupils at faith schools are 11% less likely to report that their school says homophobic bullying is wrong (57% compared to 68%), and
  • LGBT pupils of faith are 5% more likely to have attempted suicide than peers without faith (30 per cent compared to 25 per cent).

Freedom of conscience for people of faith who do believe in marriage equality should be respected. People of faith who disagree should not be forced to comply, nor should they assume the right to impose their belief on others.

The three minutes was just an opener. The full event was an hour with questions from the chair and the floor. It was challenging and draining – I felt I spoke well, though was perhaps a little defensive in trying to anticipate critique from my conservative Catholic colleague on the panel. I also did not expect the question from the chair about why I chose to marry given the heteronormative nature of the institution. My Quaker colleague pointed out that of all the participants, I was the only one being asked to discuss my own sexuality and relationship, as the other two panellists identify as heterosexual. It did feel at times like we were debating dogma and not letting ‘love shine through’, but for me this is not just dogma, it is my life experience and the decisions I have made in exercising freedom of conscience after much soul-searching. Feedback from the audience was that they would rather have heard more of my story and less disagreement with my conservative colleague. Perhaps it is OK to trust that my experience will speak for itself.

There was also a sense that we were rehearsing debates that went on five years ago in England and Wales before the civil marriage law was changed. The audience for the debate was surprisingly small – fewer than 30 – as for many in the UK this is no longer a subject for debate. Yet our churches still strive for what they call ‘good disagreement’ or a ‘fellowship of controversy’ on same-sex relationships and marriage. And in Australia, and most countries of the world, the debate continues, if it has been permitted to take place at all.

So, how would you answer that question from your experience and in your faith community?

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