As we approach the federal election many Christians are declaring same-sex marriage is one of the key issues. Claims have been made that children will miss out on the right to have a father and a mother, which will harm their emotional and social development; that the institution of marriage will be irreparably damaged as it is reduced from a bond providing for the bearing and raising of children to a romantic relationship between two adults; and that Christians will lose their freedom to oppose homosexual partnerships.
If all this is true we should be concerned. The problem is, it’s not.
Same-sex couples already live in marriage-like relationships
I have two gay friends who have been in a committed marriage-like relationship for 25 years. They are just one of many same-sex couples who have been living, working, socialising, and participating in our communities for a long, long time. They do everything a married couple do – live together, take holidays together, go out with other couples both gay and straight, provide each other with love, companionship and support. They have a deep commitment to share their lives together, remain faithful to one another and support each other until death parts them. To all intents and purposes they are married, except their relationship is not recognised as marriage.
Legally, they have almost all the same rights as married couples. In 2008 the Federal Government
amended a total of 84 Commonwealth acts to remove differential treatment of same-sex couples and their children in the areas of tax, superannuation, PBS and Medicare safety nets, aged care, veterans’ entitlements, immigration, evidence, child support, social security, workers compensation entitlements and family law….As a result of that legislation, same-sex de facto couples in Australia have the same family law rights as opposite sex de facto couples, provided the relationship broke down after 1 March 2009. The new legislation covering de facto couples largely mirrors the legislation applicable to married couples. On the case law to date there does not seem to be any difference in approach between the law for married persons and those in a de facto relationship.
Same-sex marriage will not mean a sudden rush of gay people start entering lifelong unions. They are already doing this. Nor will same-sex marriage invest gay couples with a wide-ranging raft of rights from which they are currently excluded. Gay couples already possess almost all the same rights as married people. The material difference same-sex marriage will make to the systems of society will therefore be almost nil. The significance rather will be in the hearts and minds of gay couples as they are finally able to participate in the dominant social ritual for expressing and cementing one’s commitment to a life partner.
Same-sex couples already raise children
The Australian Marriage Forum (australianmarriage.org) have “Think of the children” as their tag line. They argue that recognising same-sex marriage will deny children the right to know both their father and mother and the benefits that derive from having both male and female presence in their life. This argument might be worth debating if we lived in a society where marriage and childrearing were strongly linked. That was the case in 1951 when barely 4% of births occurred outside marriage and they were seen as scandalous. Today over 1/3 of all children born in Australia were to unwed mothers and they are celebrated (https://aifs.gov.au/facts-and-figures/births-australia). Recognising or not recognising same-sex marriage will have absolutely no impact on whether or not same-sex couples have children and raise them. Same-sex couples already have biological and adoptive children and will continue to do so whether or not same-sex marriage is recognised.
To recognise same-sex marriages does not substantially alter the meaning of marriage
Opponents of same sex marriage often argue that marriage has always been closely bound up with having and raising children, rather than being focussed on the relationship between the married partners. This was certainly true in the ancient world and was a commonly held position right up until the Reformation. Yet from the Reformation through to the start of the 20th century the notion that procreation was an indispensable dimension of sexual and marital union was abandoned by both the Protestant Church and western society. Certainly theologians and clergy assumed there was a connection between marriage and family, that marriages formed the basic social unit into which children would be born, but the Reformation and the period after it rejected the theology of the pre-Reformation church that saw marital union and procreation as essential to the meaning of marriage.
The Marriage Act came into being in 1961 and did not define the relationship in terms of producing children but in terms of the union of the two parties. It was understood to refer to the lifelong marriage of a male and a female to the exclusion of all others (http://parlinfo.aph.gov.au/parlInfo/search/display/display.w3p;query=Id%3A%22library%2Fprspub%2F1409734%22).
Opponents of same-sex marriage often add the argument that the state regulates the marriage relationship only because its has an interest in the protection of children. This is simply not the case. The State regulates marriage because it is a legally binding agreement in which parties assume serious obligations to one anther such as shared ownership of property and guardianship rights over each other when one party becomes mentally incompetent to care for themselves.
Marriage in a liberal democracy
The arguments against same-sex marriage fail. It seems to me the driving force behind opposition to same-sex marriage is the conviction that God prohibits same-sex unions. For some that is sufficient reason in and of itself to oppose same-sex marriage. For others the argument gets taken one step further, that it is in the interests of all people and of our society to live the way God desires. That may very well be the case, but we do not live in a Christian theocracy where priests interpret the divine law to political leaders who then legislate the divine will. We live in a liberal democracy and a pluralist one at that. In such a polity it makes absolute sense for the State to recognise same-sex marriages, for they represent a logical extension of the notion of marriage as a lifelong union between two people to the exclusion all others.
At the same time liberal democracy demands freedom of religion. Those churches who believe that same-sex partnerships don’t enjoy the blessing of God should be free to maintain and promulgate that belief, even if others find it offensive. It is important that we do not replace liberalism with a bland secularism that is every bit as authoritarian as the Christendom it has replaced.
The real threat to marriage
For all the reasons stated above I don’t think that the recognition of same-sex marriages is a threat to marriage nor that it signals the death of our culture. It seems to me that the real threat to marriage is the acceptance of serial monogamy and the rise of a narcissism that prioritises the pursuit of personal satisfaction over one’s obligations to others. It is here that the church has something very positive and important to add to our society.
Even if you reject my arguments about same-sex marriage it seems to me a strategic blunder of the worst kind that the churches are putting so much effort into opposing same-sex marriage. The direction of history is quite clearly turned towards the recognition and celebration of same-sex marriage.I do not understand why we’re putting so much time, energy and resource into a battle that will be lost and that is dragging the name of Christ through the mud in the process. Our opposition to same-sex marriage, coming on top of the terrible child sex abuse scandals that have marked the churches, is leaving many people convinced that we are not the great defenders of the weak and vulnerable but their oppressors. With so many things we could take a public stand upon why on earth are we making this our Waterloo?