This is not an issue of religious freedom; it is a democratic choice

5th February, 2013 6:52 pm

Though not religious myself these days, I have deep respect, affection and admiration for work that churches do to bond communities together and give hope and salvation to many. Coming from a religious family you get to see the real motivations and actions of people of faith.  Invariably these are inspirational – in small but important ways. I will defend the place of religion in our national life – including our politics – with vigour.

Then along comes the single sex marriage debate. Here it seems to me, many of the objections from a religious perspective are, to put it bluntly, entirely wrong. These views are not held universally within faiths – far from it (it is also of note that a third of the countries to have legalised same-sex civil marriage are catholic societies). Most major religions define marriage as between a man and woman, to support each other, and to ‘God willing’ bring children into the world. Interestingly, the Common Prayer Book wedding vows contain the word ‘love’ but not ‘procreate’ or ‘children’ – I guess it would make things awkward for an infertile or older couple marrying in church to slip reproduction into the wording of vows. Putting that to one side, if we were having a Parliamentary debate about changing the religious definition of marriage then the objection would be fair enough. I’d disagree with such religious voices about the justice of including same-sex couples within the institution but would understand the objection.

But that’s not what is being debated in Parliament today. The argument is over the civil definition of marriage – in statute. There is no issue of religious freedom here. You don’t have the right to live in a society of your own choosing. As minority groups, I would have thought that religions would understand the importance of that point quite clearly. Your religious freedom doesn’t give you a privileged position to decide how other people should live or what laws and institutions they can have access to.

So I’m afraid that my affection for religion is stretched to the point of elasticity on the issue of same sex access to civil marriage. What the Synod or Vatican decide to do is really none of my business ultimately (though I’m free to comment if I choose!) Those religious voices have exactly the same access to democracy as I do. This is not an issue of religious freedom; it is a democratic choice.

Personally I see this as a very simple issue. If we are to exclude certain people from our laws, institutions, and freedoms (with their associated duties) then we better have a good reason to do so. It would have to cause measurable harm. There is no good reason for objection from the perspective of religious freedom so there had better be some more convincing objections- there aren’t many or even any that don’t imply inequality.

In April I will be married in a civil ceremony in a beautiful setting. I hope that soon after same sex couples will be able to enjoy the same privilege in the same way. I will also defend religious freedom to the end – even when we disagree. And I’ll defend the rights of same sex couples to access the institution of civil marriage just as vigorously.

Value our free and unique service?

LabourList has more readers than ever before - but we need your support. Our dedicated coverage of Labour's policies and personalities, internal debates, selections and elections relies on donations from our readers.

If you can support LabourList’s unique and free service then please click here.

To report anything from the comment section, please e-mail [email protected]
  • Jeremy_Preece

    First off Anthony, it is good to hear someone in the Labour Party speak up for the huge contribution that the Christian churches make to public life as well as all of the charitable work, which seems to increase these days, to feeding those who are homeless and hungry as a result of the this government’s policies.
    On the whole discussions on this site seem to polarise and there is a considerable secularism that is taking hold. The issue of single sex marriage is another issue where this polarisation is happening.
    You and I are actually not in agreement. You say that single sex marriages are taking hold in Catholic countries as if this was some sort of cosy agreement between church and state. It is not, and it has proved to be deeply devisive in these places.
    The issue is about this sudden drive to redefine marriage which is an institution as old as the hills and one that is held dear to many of different faiths and none.
    I remain totally unconvinced that there is any need to rewrite the basis of marriage, and totally unconvinced that it is the place of parliment to do so.
    There is also the whole issue about the way that this legilation came into being. It has been railroaded through, with out proper explanation or consultation, and was not on the radar of any political party as a manifesto committment.
    In the end there is also a huge problem with changing marriage in law. The churches and people of faith are expected to rewrite their religion to fit in with the new secular craze. Yes there are exemptions in this legislation, but the very fact that parliment feels that they are high enough to hand down dispensations to the church to allow it to continue as it has for 2000 years is absoultey unbelievable.
    The amount of secularism that has engulfed us in the last 10 years is unprecidented, and we are truely in an age where to be a Christain is to expect not only ridicule, but also real agression. These changes also leave the churches vulnerable to future assults on not being equal, and future scurmishes of laws to regulate the fundmentals of the faith itself.
    So many on these pages seem to think that all religion is somehow inferior to secular atheism, and that here is another golden opportunity to go on the attack and drive it into the margins.
    What also worries me is that this legislation is going to cause quite a kick back.

    • Dave Postles

      ‘down dispensations to the church to allow it to continue as it has for 2000 years is absoultey unbelievable.’
      I’m afraid that that is incorrect. It was only latterly that the church intruded into the custom of matrimony, and even then, after matrimonial causes were removed into the church courts after 1172, the consensual contraction of marriage was by verba de praesenti and verba de futuro (and in one respect consummated only if by intercourse) (thus outside the church) and in facie ecclesie. Indeed, it can be argued that even in the case of in facie ecclesie, the wedding took place at the church door (usually the south porch) and the mass at the chancel steps was the blessing. Nor was marriage a sacrament before the Reformation in England. That’s a brief outline.

      More pertinently, please allow the rest of us to observe our own consciences.

      Congratulations to AP on his impending marriage and good wishes for a long and successful partnership. This year, we celebrate our 43rd anniversary – with no procreation (hurray!).

    • What your church decides to do is entirely to them. But as we are not a theocracy it has or should have no direct bearing on civil marriage. you will simply have to deal with the fact that the church thinks differently from the state

      • Dave Postles

        He doesn’t seem to realize that some Christian denominations in this country were proscribed from legal marriages in the recent past. His 2000 years are monolithic.

    • AlanGiles

      This is going to sound a bit like sarcasm – forgive me, I really don’t mean it to be, but if Labour really want “one nation” it seems to me those MPs who voted against gay marriage can’t want that: to have different rules for heterosexual and homosexual couples seems to me to want to continue to have divisions in society. One nation surely means accepting people and allowing them equal rights, regardless of their orientation. Surely religion is supposed to be about tolerance?. As I understand it anyway, those churches opposed to this measure will not be forced to marry same sex couples.

    • Thank you for your comments Jeremy. It’s obvious where we disagree so lets not dwell on that. My hope is that the church(es) will change their attitudes to homosexuality over time. But it must be through persuasion rather than laws that the change happens. Same sex civil marriage will change attitudes within many churches but it will be a process for churches themselves. There will be a debate within the Synod – of that I have no doubt – but that is entirely for the CofE. Catholicism works on longer timescales….

      But my deeper point here is that this debate is in a separate category to previous equality legislation (it’s why I don’t call it ‘equal marriage’). There is no legal change to churches and their works in this legislation in a way there was, for example, with adoption agencies. That issue left me with a feeling of deep unease- though again, I hope that the church will change its view. This issue leaves no such unease. It is perfectly compatible to support same sex civil marriage and believe in religious freedom.

      I agree with your concerns about some of the tonality of the debate and the assumed moral superiority of secularism. It grates.

      • Jeremy_Preece

        And thak you Anthony.
        Throughout the debate on these pages yesterday I was thinking of a wider issue, and it is exactly that tonality and assumed moral superiority of secularism.
        Labour knows that it also has to reach faith communities in order to win. These are faith groups who often collect money and distribute aid to people not just overseas but in the UK as well. Many people I know feel that they cannot vote at all, or certainly think that Labour is about the worst of a very bad bunch because of this lack of respect. It is a serious problem.
        I also think that in terms of other non-Chrisitan faiths it is likely to grate just as much. In some areas with a high Muslim demographic, this agressive secularism simply fuels the sort of unrest that plays into the hands of the likes of George Galloway.
        There are genuine concerns about the religious freedom safegaurds as the Catholic Bishops of England and Wales had expressed the view that according to some of their legal advice a church that does not opt in could legally be challeneged in the European Court of Human Rights because of the definition of a “public building” that could be applied to include a church.
        It might also become illegal for Catholic Schools and even Catholic church catacist groups to teach the RC teaching on marriage on the ground that this teaching can be deemed to be illegal.
        I will not say that this is in any way part of a conspiricy so much as what happens when a peice of legislation, which was not in any mainstream manifestos, is rushed through with limited consultation and without the usual green paper and white paper. Whatever the intensions of the legislation, rushed legislation is more likely to have loopholes and proove to be defective.
        But in the end as you say, the way forward is not legislation. The reformation idea that you took a register to see who attended Sunday worship, or the fanatic who points a gun at a fellow Muslim to ensure that they attend Friday Prayers is the very worst example of their faith, and the result of cohersion is worth nothing.


LabourList Daily Email

Everything Labour. Every weekday morning

Share with your friends