Same-sex marriage should not be a matter for a conscience vote

The world is recognising that the issue of same-sex marriage is a matter of what state law, not religious doctrine, says, to the extent that Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Xavier Bettel (right) and Gauthier Destenay recently married. EPA/Julien Warnand

There has been much debate about whether MPs should be allowed a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. Many suggest that religious sentiment rather than party policy should determine how parliamentarians vote. Despite what people often assume, however, same-sex marriage is a political rather than a religious issue; that is why the debate is about whether or not it should be legal, not whether or not it fits with any religious doctrine.

Same-sex marriage would already occur if the state did not interfere because there are plenty of people (vicars, priests, marriage celebrants) ready and willing to marry gay people. The reason this does not happen is because the state forbids it. If you have any doubt about this, read the Marriage Amendment Act 2004, which states:

Marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.

There is nothing to stop us changing this to:

Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.

That is what the Irish Constitution will now say.

In 2004, the Australian government decided, with the support of the Labor opposition, to deny a section of the population a right that can be enjoyed by the rest of the community. To oppose same-sex marriage, therefore, means that one supports state discrimination regarding a right deemed so fundamental to human wellbeing that it is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Article 16).

Religion ought not rule in a secular democracy

My preference would be for the state to stop interfering with marriage, but that is a topic for another day. Given that it does interfere, and differentiates between heterosexual and same-sex marriage, it better have very good reasons for doing so. As stated above, theology cannot do the heavy lifting because marriage is defined by the state not religion.

The fact that some religions suggest same-sex unions are an abomination is also irrelevant. The liberal-democratic state should not be in the business of imposing the religious beliefs of one group on another group. A religious person who finds such unions contradict her faith should pause before entering into one, but she has no good reason for stopping other people from doing so.

Opposition does not come only from the religious. In a conversation with Anne Summers at the Sydney Opera House, former prime minister Julia Gillard told the audience she is opposed to same-sex marriage because marriage has traditionally been between a man and a woman.

Julia Gillard offered a couple of arguments against same-sex marriage, neither of which stands up well.

This is a terrible argument. Wives were traditionally deemed the property of the husband and rape within marital bonds was permitted. I doubt Gillard would offer her support for these traditions simply because that is how we used to do things.

Gillard also offered a more general opposition to all forms of marriage based on her feminist beliefs. On these grounds, however, same-sex marriage seems better than the heterosexual version because it is not founded on a tradition of male domination. There is certainly nothing in Gillard’s anti-marriage stance that supports discriminating against same-sex marriage.

The main point, however, is that Gillard’s distaste for marriage may be a good reason for her to avoid it, but it is not a good reason for disallowing it for other people.

Rights of children are a furphy too

But, some people will protest, “What about the children?” This concern was raised in the debate in Ireland by (despite scandals over child abuse) supporters of the Catholic Church.

Well, what about the children? It turns out they are just fine. The social science data shows that children raised by same-sex couples are no better or worse off than children raised by heterosexual couples despite the social ostracism they often face. If we really care about these children we can help them by removing the stigma attached to same-sex marriage.

In 1959, after Gladys Namagu was prohibited from marrying her white fiance, Mick Daly, the power to ban interracial marriage was removed without any conscience vote. Douglas Lockwood Collection/Northern Territory Library

The arguments above suggest that MPs should not be allowed a conscience vote on same-sex marriage. It is a matter of conscience whether a parliamentarian decides to marry a person of the same sex, but it is not a matter of conscience whether other people are allowed to do so.

If party leaders suggested a conscience vote on inter-racial marriages or marriages between Catholics and Protestants there would be outrage, but this is exactly what is happening with same-sex marriage. The position of the party leaders should be clear: all party members should be required to vote in favour of same-sex marriage. In Labor’s case, that is consistent with the party’s policy platform. To allow otherwise is to condone discrimination.

It is a great shame that Australia is so far behind the times on this issue. Ireland is a country where homosexuality was outlawed until 1993 and yet they legalised same-sex marriage this year and in Friday’s referendum they voted by a large majority to reify this decision by changing their constitution. If conservative Catholic Ireland can do it, I am sure we can. ​

We produce knowledge-based, ethical journalism. Please donate and help us thrive. Tax deductible.