The Labor party in Australia has rejected the call to extend marriage rights to lesbian and gay and other non-traditional couples. They say that same-sex unions should be recognised, but there should be no “gay marriage.” [link] Under Labor, the state will not recognise marriages between couples other than a man and a woman. That’s because Kevin Rudd, who must be obeyed, has said that marriage is a commitment between a man and a woman [link]. The Australian Christian Union is delighted. And why would they not be? The full power of the state has been deployed to reinforce their views about who is blessed by their god, and who is not.
I think the state shouldn’t be involved in marriage, and defining marriage, at all. Further, I think that religious groups co-opt the power of the state to reinforce their own views about what relationships are permitted and what relationships are not, and they use the state’s power to augment their own standing..
Frankly, I don’t see why the state should be interested in marriage per se. I can see why the state might be interested in registering relationships, in noting who says that they are in a committed relationship with an-other person(s), and in applying special laws to those people, such as matrimonial property law. As a society, we want to be able to distinguish between people who just happen to be sharing accommodation, and people who are in a long-term committed relationship, where their interests are amalgamated for the foreseeable future. But from the state’s point of view, the reasons for wanting to be able to distinguish between people who just happen to share accommodation, and people in long-term relationships, are mostly to do with allocating rights and responsibilities, so we know who is deemed to be responsible for looking after other people (for welfare purposes), who shares income and resources with who (for welfare and tax purposes), who has claims on which bits of property (mostly to enable property to be apportioned fairly in the event that a partnership ends, either through death or dissolution). However, I can’t see why on earth the state should give a damn about whether those long-term, committed relationship households are based on sole parents, or cis-gendered male/female couples, or lesbian couples, or gay couples, or bi couples, or trios, or quartets, or whatever.
Of course, we need to distinguish what I’m calling households from share-housemates, or flatmates, or room mates (depending on your preferred terminology), but that’s comparatively easy; people come and go from flats and sharehouses and apartments, and it is intended that they will come and go. In a household, people intend to stay, and to build a life together. It’s that idea that they are building a life together that is the basis of the state allocating rights and responsibilities to the household as a whole, not to the individuals who happen to share a house or a flat or an apartment for a few weeks or months or even years.
No matter how we delineate households from temporary arrangements, the fact that the state gives a certain standing (marriage) to some households is unfair. Either the recognition of the state should apply to all households, or to none. Anything else represents the state picking and choosing amongst its citizens, saying in some arbitrary fashion that some people are more worthy than others. That ought to be anathema in an egalitarian state.
Even worse than the state giving standing and status to some households but not to others, the churches, of all denominations and religions, have muscled in on the act. Their marriage celebrants are entitled to conduct ceremonies which are valid for the state’s purposes of recognising households. So when for example, a Catholic priest stands there and intones his words, he is performing a state function. That gives him and his church power and recognition and standing that may be denied to other groups, simply because he is deemed to be performing a state function (registering relationships / marriages). Moreover, many many churches routinely refuse to marry some people, and whaddyaknow, the people who are excluded by churches turn out to mirror almost exactly the people that the state refuses to marry (gays and lesbians and trans-people, of course). In effect, the churches have co-opted the power of the state to reinforce their own views of morality.
I think that the churches should not be allowed to marry people. For official, state purposes, that is. If the Head Prefect of the Assembly of Fairy Worshippers want to conduct wedding ceremonies on midsummer night’s eve, then she is most welcome to. As is any Catholic or Presbyterian or Anglican or Buddhist or Muslim or Jewish cleric. It just oughtn’t to count for the purposes of the state. So people who want to register their relationship in the eyes of the state as well as in the eyes of their church/coven/synagogue/temple/fairy circle/humanist association/mosque/atheists and sceptics society/whatever should go ahead and do that i.e. register their relationship, and then do whatever else they like that constitutes solemnising a marriage in their preferred dispensation.
Alternatively, if churches/covens/synagogues/temples/fairy circles/humanist associations/mosques/atheists and sceptics societies/whatever want to continue to offer wedding ceremonies, and to have those ceremonies perform a dual function of registering a relationship for the purposes of the state, then they had better make their ceremonies available to all citizens of the state. Other people who provide a state service are required to provide it for all citizens who meet the state’s rules for eligibility, and there is no reason that it should be any different for clerics providing marriage services.
As for marriage for lesbian and gay and other non-traditional couples, or trios, or quartets, I think that what is available for one Australian must be available for another. If the government wants to stay in the marriage game, then it needs to make its version of marriage available to all Australians. So while I oppose the idea of the state offering marriage services at all, if the state is going to ignore my advice (hah!) and continue to offer them, then it had better offer them to everyone – het, cis, trans, gay, lesbian, other, whatever. That’s only fair.
Update: Edited slightly to add mosques and temples and synagogues to my list of possible marriage-performing institutions.
Note: This post is a little late, I’m sorry. Ideally, it ought to have been up on Sunday, but stuff happened. The ideas have been knocking around in my head for years, even since the civil unions debate in New Zealand, but I didn’t have a blog back then. I supported civil unions as being better than nothing for gay and lesbian and other non-traditional relationships, but ideally, it should either be marriage for all, or civil unions for all, or nothing for all. Should Australia go down the civil unions route, then I would hold much the same position.
For the record, Mr Strange Land and I had a full-scale nuptial mass, nearly twenty years ago now. I was young… and it wasn’t until a few years later (about four, to be precise) that I finally walked out of the Catholic church, and all god-belief whatsoever. These days, I think that a civil union would be the way to go, in New Zealand.