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.

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