Opposition leader Bill Shorten has announced he will introduce a private members bill legislating for marriage equality. As we consider this I think we have something to learn from the 17th century Baptist leader Thomas Helwys, who issued the first call for religious freedom written in the English language.
“For we do freely profess that our lord the king has no more power over their consciences than over ours, and that is none at all. For our lord the king is but an earthly king, and he has no authority as a king but in earthly causes. And if the king’s people be obedient and true subjects, obeying all human laws made by the king, our lord the king can require no more. For men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it; neither may the king judge between God and man. Let them be heretics, Turks, Jews, or whatsoever, it appertains not to the earthly power to punish them in the least.”*
Helwys was one of the founding fathers of the Baptist movement. He had strong opinions on what was right and wrong – the booklet from which the call for religious freedom came was titled “A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity” and rather crassly identified the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church as respectively the first and second beasts of the book of Revelation! Helwys was convinced that “heretics, Turks [i.e. Moslems], Jews” dishonoured God and were practising false religion. Yet he argued passionately for their right to do so.
John Coffey summarises the implications many have drawn from Helwys:
[The State’s] purpose is not to promote a particular faith but to govern and order a multi-faith society, in which Protestants, Catholics, Muslims, pagans and even atheists enjoy the full rights of citizenship and dwell together in peace**
In the centuries since Helwys wrote the concept of human freedom has been widening. We have recognised the full humanity of women and all races. We affirm that all people have the right to freedom of speech, freedom of movement, freedom of conscience, etc. The State is responsible to safeguard these freedoms. We tolerate some restrictions on our freedom in order to secure the common good, but we do not tolerate restrictions on fundamental freedoms. We tolerate the State requiring us to wear seat belts, for example, but do not tolerate the State telling us where we can live.
Which brings us to marriage equality. As far as I can see, the issue has nothing to do with what anyone may think about the ethics of same-sex relationships. It’s about the role of the State. We live in a society in which adults are free to make their own decisions about entering and exiting sexually intimate partnerships as surely as they are free to choose their religion. The role of the State is not to adjudicate on the ethics of freely chosen partnerships, but to recognise and protect the right of people to choose them, while doing all it can to further the common good by helping couples sustain their relationships and protecting their rights if they decide to end the relationship. Given marriage in our society is a legally recognised instrument by which two people commit themselves to a lifelong partnership it would seem reasonable to conclude that the State should be blind to the gender of those entering this partnership as much as it is blind to the race or social status of the parties to the relationship.
Against this, some argue that marriage is more than an instrument by which two people commit themselves to a lifelong partnership, that it is also the context for having and raising children. On the assumption that it is detrimental for children not to have access to a mother and a father they argue that legislating for marriage equality represents a threat to the common good so substantial that on balance it justifies constraining the freedom of LGBT couples to marry. Yet as intuitive as it may seem that a child is better off having a mother and a father over two fathers or two mothers, the evidence to date suggests otherwise. The Columbia Law School Public Policy Research Portal, for example, says
We identified 75 scholarly studies that met our criteria [All studies must be peer-reviewed, published in a scholarly journal, and directly relevant to the policy question at hand] for addressing the wellbeing of children with gay or lesbian parents. Of those studies, 71 concluded that children of gay or lesbian parents fare no worse than other children. While many of the sample sizes were small, and some studies lacked a control group, researchers regard such studies as providing the best available knowledge about child adjustment, and do not view large, representative samples as essential. We identified four studies concluding that children of gay or lesbian parents face added disadvantages. Since all four took their samples from children who endured family break-ups, a cohort known to face added risks, these studies have been criticized by many scholars as unreliable assessments of the wellbeing of LGB-headed households. Taken together, this research forms an overwhelming scholarly consensus, based on over three decades of peer-reviewed research, that having a gay or lesbian parent does not harm children.
A 2013 review by the Australian Institute of Family Studies found that
Most studies to date indicate that children raised in same-sex parented families do as well emotionally, socially and educationally as their peers in comparable kinds of heterosexual families, although there are some differences between children raised in same-sex and other kinds of families beginning to be noted and more openly discussed…Although numerous scholars now agree it is not possible to sustain a claim frequently made in the earlier literature that there are no differences between children raised in same-sex and heterosexual parented families (Amato, 2012; Biblarz & Savci, 2010; Biblarz & Stacey, 2010; Eggebeen, 2012; Goldberg, 2010; Marks, 2012; Regnerus, 2012; Stacey & Biblarz, 2001), there is now strong evidence that same-sex parented families constitute supportive environments in which to raise children.
Rather than militating against marriage equality, this is an argument in its favour, for if giving oneself to another in marriage reinforces and strengthens longevity and commitment in relationships, legislating for marriage equality should increase the well-being of children.
From a principled point of view then, it seems to me quite consistent for conservative Christians who believe that in God’s eyes marriage is between a man and a woman, to nonetheless ask that the State recognise the marriages of LGBT people.
* A Short Declaration of the Mystery of Iniquity
** J Coffey , From Helwys to Leland: Baptist and Religious Tolerance in England and America, 1612‐1791’ in Bebbington (ed) Studies in Baptist History and Thought: The Gospel in the World’ Paternoster 2002