Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Gay Marriage, Civil Unions, The Church and Equality

Today, the NZ Parliament begins the debate on Louisa Wall's Bill to legalise Gay Marriage.

Eight years ago, amidst a great deal more controversy than there appears to be now, the NZ government signed into law the Civil Union Act, under which two consenting adults, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, could enter into a legal contract similar to (but not the same as) marriage.  It was a step so far, seen as too far by some and not going far enough by others.  But at the time, it was certainly a move towards treating all citizens equally in the matter of "joining together two people who love each other for better or for worse until death us do part".

I have been  saddened by some of the comments surrounding this next step - allowing consenting adults, whatever their sexual orientation, to enter into marriage.  The most common is "they've got their Civil Union, what more do they want?!"  which was perfectly answered by Nadine Chalmers-Ross on Breakfast this morning, when she said:
“One of the difficulties I have with Bob McCroskie’s [National Director of Family First] argument against same sex marriage is when he says “Oh but same-sex couples have their civil unions” it’s a bit like people in apartheid South Africa saying ‘black people have their own bars so why let them into ours?’. You can’t argue that this is not about equality, because it is.”

As with anything that makes a social change,  there are complications in the ripples.

I belong to a traditional, conservative Christian Church, quite unafraid to speak aloud its protestation at civil and moral matters which it finds abhorrent.  It is an organisation with a strong social justice identity and focus, based on the tenet that each person is sacred and dignified.  There are no conditions to that tenet - regardless of race, colour, religion, sexual orientation, age, abilities, wealth and anything else you can think of, each person is sacred and valuable.  It also holds unreservedly that the homosexual act is deviant behaviour.

I also belong to a society which is working to recognise and repair the injustices of treating people in different ways based on their race, abilities and gender. 

Not for the first time, my church and my society are entering a no-compromise head-to-head battle.

It would be na├»ve to think that the State could legislate for equality in this issue and that the churches could set their own rules as to who they marry.  A church, which while accepting and embracing the individual homosexual person sees any homosexual act as completely unacceptable, is not going to be able, in all conscience, to accept its ministers performing marriage ceremonies between gay couples.  And a gay couple who wanted to be married in the church to which they belong would have a right to take a case of discrimination when they were denied this.  I don't think the church could win a legal challenge in this matter.  And yet it would be equally iniquitous to compel the church to perform such a ceremony.

Maybe it is time to separate church and state.
If ministers of religion could not agree to perform marriage ceremonies in accordance with all sections of the law - presuming here that the right to marry is afforded to all sane, assenting adults - then maybe ministers of religion should not be licenced to actually perform marriages.

I believe that in some European countries (why does Italy spring to mind?), a couple wanting to marry applies for a licence, just like in NZ, and then is married by a registrar.  If they so wish, they can then have a religious ceremony, in which their marriage is blessed in their church and before God.  They can chose to have the civil ceremony fairly privately and the church celebration surrounded by all their loved ones if they wish.

The question of whether we should deny any of our adult citizens the right to marry should not be countered by "what sexual orientation are they?"  any more than it should be by "what colour are they?" or "what religion are they?" before an answer can be given.  If the sticking point of gay marriage is that the churches can't accept it, then maybe they have given their own answer, and they should be blessing marriages, not performing them.