Like many others I watched the publicity train wreck that was the Coopers-Bible Society collaboration with astonishment. In a number of fora I’ve heard Christians lamenting that they are not able to have a “civil discussion” on same-sex marriage and that this represents the silencing of the church in public debate.

They’re right on one thing. Many in our society are not interested in a “civil discussion” on same-sex marriage, but it’s not because they hate Christians or despise religion. It’s because they see same-sex marriage as a human rights issue.

We are the heirs of both the Reformation and the Enlightenment. These placed the individual front and centre, asserted the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, and demanded that the final arbiter in matters of faith and ethics be the conscience of the individual rather than the dictates of the state or church. And so we got statements like that in the US declaration of Independence

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”

It’s taken quite a few hundred years for us to work this through, to figure out that “all men” included slaves, women, children, and people of different races. In the last couple of decades we have seen the extension of the notion of equality and freedom to those whose sexuality and gender identity are not heterosexual.

The test of whether a person enjoys genuine equality and freedom is not to point to all the privileges they currently enjoy, but that they are free to access the same privileges as any other person. This explains why same-sex marriage is such a touchtone issue.

This is why Christians are being dismissed, often contemptuously, when they raise the issue of same-sex marriage. To argue that gay couples should be excluded from marriage is seen as the equivalent of arguing that black people should be excluded from marriage. We can scream til we’re blue in the face that the two cases are not equivalent, but no matter how loudly we might protest, it all sounds like special pleading. To the modern ear the “equal but different” line has no more resonance when applied to sexuality than it did when applied to discrimination based upon gender, culture, or race.

What’s more, people perceive that opposition to same-sex marriage is held on religious grounds. Yes, Christians seek to frame their opposition in terms of arguments for the “common good”, but the fact that opposition to same-sex marriage is being argued almost exclusively by religious groups is a pretty strong indication where the true source of opposition lies. So not only is the church perceived to be arguing for the denial of human rights to one group in society, it is seen to be doing so on purely religious grounds, dragging us back into the premodern era in which dogma was imposed.

People are not demanding that the church be silenced. We live in a society where we are free to practice our faith; where substantial numbers of our political, corporate and civil society leaders are people of faith; and where the non-Christian parents of my son’s friends enjoy the fact that their kids enjoy youth group. When Christians speak up in defence of the vulnerable, the weak and the oppressed, no one is seeking to silence them. What our community is telling us is if you stand against civil and human rights for people they love and value you will not be invited to the table to civilly discuss it; you will be treated with the contempt that you deserve.

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