I lived in America during the debate about the proposed federal marriage amendment in 2004, something which inspired one of my first posts in the Mormon blogosphere. By the time of Prop 8 I was safely ensconced back in England. Until now I have been able to maintain a relatively dispassionate distance, as the problem was an American one. No more. Gay marriage is coming to my corner of Zion’s vineyard.
This will not be a post detailing all the tired arguments for and against gay marriage. I simply want to share with our American readers what this debate looks like in foreign climes. Gay marriage has already been ruled as an unnecessary furthering of civil rights in the UK, unnecessary in the sense that the courts have decreed that gay civil partnerships — legal since 2004 — accord the same rights as marriage. A lesbian couple who married in Vancouver had their marriage recognised only as a civil partnership in the UK. Their appeal for full marriage recognition was rejected on the grounds that, “Abiding single sex relationships are in no way inferior, nor does English Law suggest that they are by according them recognition under the name of civil partnership.” In other words, civil partnerships are considered sufficient in ensuring the civil rights of gays.
As a legal matter, then, it would seem that gay marriage is not necessary in the UK. However, it has now become a political issue, with the ruling Conservative-Liberal coalition setting out their aim to pass gay marriage legislation. The government has embarked on a public consultation and clearly believes it will prove sufficiently popular. All the main parties support the legislation and it will almost certainly pass.
How should groups opposed to gay marriage respond? My advice — and of course nobody is asking me — would be to consider the main argument lost. The public will grow to instinctively accept that civil partnership is inferior to marriage and that attempts to bar gays from marriage is discriminatory. Any religious organisation which shouts loudly on this issue — as the Catholic church has already done — will ultimately look bigoted, a stigma bad enough to bear in 2012 let alone in the near future when homosexuality will almost completely be socially accepted and what will be seen as their bigotry remembered. Calls to oppose gay marriage, however civilised, will also further entrench elements of homophobia which already exist in some religions, further separating them from the mainstream and alienating their own gay members.
Temptations to be a lone voice of righteousness crying in the wilderness should therefore be avoided. They will fail. They will fail because they will not produce an argument that will work. The British are not interested in Leviticus, they are not inclined to see gays as the enemies of marriage, and they are already, by and large, happy with gay adoption, thus making illogical the “marriage is best for children” anti-gay marriage argument.
Please note: I am not claiming that gay marriage is right only that it is inevitable. And thus to my final point: religions should be focussing instead on their right to opt out of gay marriage, an argument that has a chance of succeeding. The government claims that this right will be enshrined in law and I am inclined to believe them as religious freedom laws are pretty robust in these isles. However, the European Court of Human Rights looms over most things these days and so religions can justifiably push for any guarantees to be robust and, preferably, already tested in law.
In doing this a different argument might come from the churches, one which will not further marginalise them from public life. Indeed, it might provide an opportunity to be positive and persuasive about traditional marriage rather than simply negative about gay marriage. They might, for example, state that they are in favour of gay rights and civil partnerships, and that if there is a democratic call for gay civil marriage they will not oppose it, but that they want to feel sure that their right to reserve the religious sacrament of marriage to a man and a woman will remain.
The public will admire that view because traditional marriage is still viewed fondly — witness William and Kate’s very Anglican wedding and the recent rise in marriage rates — but they will not admire the kind of rhetoric that calls gay marriage “grotesque”, a rather inevitable characterisation if churches fight desperately to win an unwinnable war. I know that many people of faith will be averse to the making of the kind of calculation I suggest here. I hope that Mormons in the UK will apply some of their Mormon pragmatism and make their voice heard in a way that, whilst true to their beliefs, will also be listened to both now and in the future.
Oh be wise.