Civil rights valued over religious prejudice

The issue of same-sex marriage is an equalities issue. Cardinal Keith O’Brien’s intemperate interventions have also made it a civil liberties issue.

There is no threat to the rights or liberties of churches. Same-sex marriages are legal in eight European countries. In not one is the Roman Catholic church (or any other religious organisation) required to officiate at such marriages.

The threat of some future compulsion on the churches is a ludicrous red-herring. What couple would wish to be married by someone opposed in principal to their marriage? Why mar the happiest day of one’s life by handing control of it to someone who condemns your morality and lifestyle?

What the Cardinal and leaders of several of the evangelical Protestant churches and the Islamic community are trying to do however, is to impose a specifically religious view of marriage on every citizen, including the irreligious.

Opponents of same-sex marriage frequently argue that there is a long-standing consensus on what marriage means. In the Cardinal’s words, “No government has the moral authority to dismantle the universally understood meaning of marriage.”

He is wrong. There is no “universally understood” definition. Marriage is a human construct which has changed over time. For example, it was legal in Scotland until 1929 for girls to marry at 12 and boys at 14. There are religions, including one with which the Cardinal is allying himself in this debate and one which may provide the next US President, which have justified polygamy. There are major disagreements, even among opponents of same-sex marriage, over divorce and contraception.

In Scotland there has long been a division between the legal status of marriage and the position of certain churches, particularly the Roman Catholics and Episcopalians. In post-reformation Scotland marriage has been a civil contract. The Church of Scotland for long held that it should have a monopoly in officiating at marriages but accepted that civil-contract concept. A marriage therefore could be legitimated by declaration before witnesses (until 1939, when registry marriages were introduced) or indeed by “habit and repute”.

For the Catholic and Episcopalian churches, marriage is a sacrament and requires a priestly celebrant. Again, therefore there is no consensus, on the meaning of marriage. So long, however, as no priest, minister, rabbi or imam requires to perform a marriage against conscience, same-sex marriage can fit neatly into the Scottish legal tradition of a civil contract between two consenting adults.

The opposition to same-sex marriage is not of course restricted to the Roman Catholic church. The evangelical branches of Protestantism are also hostile. Their opposition tends to be articulated in terms of scriptural authority rather than historical definition. Leviticus 20:13 is abundantly clear: “If a man lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination; they shall surely be put to death”. Would they, I wonder, on grounds of scriptural authority, also want putting-to-death reintroduced? Moreover, since scripture makes no explicit condemnation of lesbianism, might the evangelicals agree to same-sex marriage for women? Of course not.

The fundamentalist Protestants who are currently fulminating against same-sex marriage are from the same denominations whose adherents in local government closed parks on Sundays and opposed Sunday ferries. The common factor in these attitudes is a conviction that they can not only advise, even instruct, their co-religionists how to behave, but can use the powers of the state to impose their views on others.

On the other hand, the Catholic Church also has imposed its particular perception of truth wherever it can exercise political influence. In the Irish Free State, divorce allowing remarriage was banned until the 1996 constitutional change, itself vigorously opposed by the Catholic church. The sale of contraceptives was banned until 1979.

The Roman Catholic church and men like Cardinal O’Brien have never adjusted to diminished power in the secular world and look back nostalgically to regimes such as De Valera’s.

Enmeshed as the church has been over recent decades in moral scandals centring on the sexual behaviour of its own priests, it vehemently berates the moral laxities of the laity and wishes it could turn the clock back.

These religious conservatives seek to impose their views on others outwith their faith group through the manipulation of civil society and the law. If the present Scottish Government surrenders to such pressure, it sets a worrying precedent for the kind of nation it wishes to create post-independence.

The positive news is that the language of Cardinal O’Brien and the Roman Catholic church, utilising words and phrases such as “grotesque”, “immoral as slavery”, “up the stakes in the war on gay marriage”, are indicative, not of an ethically confident church, but rather it reflects the fear of a church which cannot maintain the social power and control it once wielded.

The Scottish Government has several duties: to guarantee freedom to churches to preach and practice whatever they may decide (including to decide whom they will marry) without state interference; to defend the rights of all loving couples to equality; to maintain the Scottish tradition of marriage as a civil contract; and to establish that the civil power will not bow to religious prejudice.

 

The above article was first published in The Scotsman on 24 July 2012: http://www.scotsman.com/the-scotsman/opinion/comment/alex-wood-civil-rights-valued-over-religious-prejudice-1-2428162

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