Tuesday, 5 February 2013

Equal marriage - what's not to like?

Whilst I try to have a thought-through opinion on many issues, I always do my best to understand the arguments and thought-process of those with whom I disagree.

In this regard, I am completely flummoxed on the issue of equal marriage. Try as I might, I cannot understand why anyone would oppose the extension of the institution of marriage, by general consent a ‘good thing’, to those who wish, freely and willingly, to enter into it. Perhaps you can help me. As I understand it, the main arguments put forward are these…

Marriage has always been between men and women. Equal Marriage devalues the concept of marriage

The first part is, of course, factually accurate.  But lawful sex was defined as being between a man and a woman until the law changed in the UK in 1967. Marital rape was lawful in England and Wales until as recently as 1992, when it was recognised by the House of Lords. Civil Partnership was unheard of until it was created in 2004. My point is that the fact that something ‘has always been’ or ‘has never been’ is not an argument against change.

Civil marriage is a creation of the state (see the Marriage Act 1949). It can therefore be changed by the state through the democratically elected representatives of the people. That’s how it works. Indeed the rules surrounding civil marriage have changed considerably, notably in the licensing of a wide range of establishments for the conduct of marriages.

I really don’t understand how extending marriage to same sex couples in any way devalues marriage as an institution or has any impact on those of us in heterosexual marriages.

Marriage is for procreation and raising children

Of course, many marriages are blessed with children, but many are not either by choice or for other reasons. Are childless couples any less married? Of course not. Some are very happy about their situation, some not, and some choose to adopt.

So what’s the difference between a heterosexual couple adopting children, or choosing to remain childless and a gay couple doing the same thing? I genuinely don’t see it.

The legislation is flawed, so it isn’t equal

The argument here is that because the new legislation doesn’t contain the concept of consummation or provide for divorce by reason of adultery, it is fundamentally flawed. Stonewall points out that 98% of divorces are actually on the grounds of unreasonable behaviour, and that the definition of consummation can be developed through case law, as indeed it has been in the case of heterosexual marriage (W v W, 1967).

It’s not fair because straight couples can’t have a Civil Partnership

In my response to the consultation exercise, I argued that Civil Partnerships should be abolished, so that everyone had the same option of a civil or religious marriage. That didn’t happen, but I can’t see that that anomaly is of any great significance, and certainly not a reason to reject equal marriage.

Registrars and teachers who don’t agree with equal marriage will be sacked

The argument is that Registrars who disagree with equal marriage could be forced to conduct same sex ceremonies, and that teachers could be required to teach that equal marriage is acceptable, even if they believe that it isn’t.

I’m afraid I take an unsympathetic line on this. Registrars are employed to perform a range of ceremonies according to the laws of the country. It is not a matter of personal conscience. This has recently been confirmed by the European Court, which rejected the claim that the human rights of a Registrar had been infringed when he was required to be willing to register a Civil Partnership.

In the case of teachers, they are required to teach about the world as it is, not as they would like it to be. If children ask for their opinion, they are entitled to give it, but in the context that this is what parliament has agreed and this is the law. Some teachers no doubt believe in creationism, but are required to teach children about evolution.

Creating law according to the wishes of those who would be required to implement it would be the clearest possible example of the tail wagging the dog.

The Churches are opposed to Equal Marriage

It would be truer to say that some – probably most – churches are opposed. Others have made it clear that they welcome the change and wish to offer marriage to all. And that’s fine, it’s up to them. The legislation makes it clear that no religious institution will be compelled to carry out same sex marriages. Indeed in the case of the Church of England and Church in Wales it will be unlawful for them to do so. I understand that this could be changed without further primary legislation if at some future date the Church changes its stance.

So there you are. The Bill will pass through Parliament despite the opposition of a very vocal minority. In 20 years time, I wonder how many of those who vote against it will look back on this day with pride or will they realise, with the benefit of hindsight, that they were on the wrong side of history.

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