Equal Marriage Rights

Just back from the debate with Catholic Voices where I was speaking in favour of legalising same-sex marriage in England and Wales. Here is what I wrote to say (didn’t quite put it all like this is the end):

The last few decades have seen progressive social acceptance and  equal treatment in law of same sex couples.

What are the reasons for this?

Firstly, there is a recognition that same sex orientations and relationships are a natural occurrence. There is hardly a species of animal in which we cannot observe same sex intercourse or pair bonding and human beings are no different.

Secondly, there is a higher notion of human dignity and respect for human dignity that has developed. Respect for the individual, her nature, her choices, her freedom, means we have less stomach or desire or inclination to go poking into people’s private lives in an invasive, humiliating, and prohibitive way. Sexual orientation fits well into this category of thing that we’re not willing to make a public issue of anymore. We are just willing to accept it.

Thirdly, we have seen the rise of the liberal principle that individuals should have their own search for happiness and fulfilment respected and facilitated so long as they are not harming others. The ability of people to form fulfilling sexual relationships with people of the same sex, start families and have their partnerships recognised, of course, is a great good for the people involved and in of itself harms no one.

So, in light of these three principles – the naturalness of same-sex attraction, the dignity of privacy we wish to afford to others and enjoy for ourselves, and the principle of permitting conduct that does no harm – civil rights of all sorts have been and ought to be extended to people with orientations towards other people of the same sex. Same sex couples should have the same civil rights as couples consisting of a man and a woman.

Whatever additional reasons we may have on this side this evening, and you’ll hear some religious arguments from my colleagues later, we are all agreed on this case for equal civil rights for gay or bisexual people.

Let’s turn now to marriage.

In this life, some people pair up and form long-term, sometimes lifelong, bonds, creating kinship with each other and between their families. The recognised forms vary across the world and across time, and mainly – but not exclusively – consist of the union of one or more men with one or more women usually for a set period of time, which may be life. Sometimes they consist of more than one man or more than one woman. In England and Wales for the last couple of thousand years, it has been the relationship between one man and one woman that has had dominant social recognition.

In some cultures, like in Europe a few centuries ago, this is a social institution only and the state is not at all involved. Two people come together, declare their intentions, and society looks on them as wedded.

In England and Wales the state is involved. Since 1837 civil marriages have been available for one man and one woman and they now constitute a majority of marriages – about 70% of marriages each year. This institution of marriage is indisputably a civil matter.

My view is that this makes it the sort of civil right which ought, given what we have said about the civil equality of people with an orientation towards other people of the same sex, to be extended to same-sex couples.

That, in essence, is my argument. That the right to have your partnership recognised by the civil authority is a civil right like any other, which should be afforded to same sex couples because, for all the reasons we spoke of earlier, same sex couples ought to have the same civil rights as other couples.

I want to take on now three possible objections that I see there as being to this argument:

The first is that the state has no business interfering in or regulating people’s private lives. Why should the state be laying down the law for what is and what isn’t an acceptable relationship between people? Well, to some extent this is an argument many liberal people may endorse, especially given the connotations of ownership and patriarchy that marriage may be seen to still bear. Nonetheless, the state does recognise marriage between a woman and a man, so I think that, unless and until the state stops doing that, the argument for same-sex marriage is still sound in the present real life context.

The second argument is that the state should not redefine or does not have the power to redefine marriage as including a relationship between two people of the same sex. Well, the argument about whether it should do this is I think dealt with by the case for equal civil rights – the state should redefine civil concepts in line with the principle of equal treatment. Let’s think then about the arguments people make when they say that the state does not have the power to redefine marriage.

In fact, the state has redefined marriage many times, when it has moved from property based views of women, when it has recognised Jewish and Quaker rituals, when it recognised Roman Catholic rituals. So the first thing to say is that marriage is redefined and the state has done so.

But what people really often mean when they say this is that there is some essential universal definition of marriage which is above the state – their definition of course. The opposition to legalising same sex marriage mainly define marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman for the purpose of raising children. This, they say, is the essential form of marriage which the state must not vary. In fact, this is bad argument, as the definition of civil marriage already departs from this apparently essential prescription – it need not be for life, for example, and infertile people have the same right to marry as fertile people.

Reform of the civil institution of marriage leaves untouched other extra-civil cultural views on what marriage is. Mormons or Muslims who do so are still free to define marriage as between a man and one or more women. A Roman Catholic may still see it as a sacrament.

The third argument is that civil partnerships already provide the necessary legal recognition to same-sex couples. The answer to this, I think, is that civil partnerships may offer legal protection, but they do not offer equality, though they are a step towards equality. No serious argument for civil rights can accept a separate but equal, segregationist approach to equal treatment. Some say this is merely symbolic. Well it certainly is symbolic, does that justify the ‘merely’? We say it doesn’t. We on this side say that the symbolic is one of the most important things about equality of civil rights and we support it.


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