Soapbox: Making marriage sex-neutral is a huge cultural loss to our community

David Smyth is public policy officer at the Evangelical Alliance and here lays out a case against making marriage sex neutral arguing that there is an elision between the terms marriage and wedding which redefines the committment of hetrosexual couples whether it is inside a faith community or outside.

Same-sex marriage is a sensitive issue. It’s all about identity, relationships and belief and these are things we all care deeply about. There have been some very personal stories from people on this site in recent days and this piece is offered graciously and respectfully.

This debate about marriage is essentially about competing views of the common good. Advocates of same-sex marriage see ‘equal marriage’ as foundational to a more equal and just Northern Ireland. Those who wish to see marriage continue as a uniquely opposite-sex relationship are also driven by a vision of an equal and just Northern Ireland. We want to see everyone cherished and protected under the law and are not convinced that redefining marriage is the best way to achieve this. We simply disagree with the conflation of marriage, sexuality and equality.

Marriage as presently defined in Northern Ireland legally unites a man and woman with each other and any children born from their union. Some couples have children outside marriage, some have no children for various reasons and to be clear procreation is not itself a condition of a valid marriage.

However same-sex relationships can never in themselves lead to the creation of new human beings. In this way marriage has played an important role in the social cohesion and ordering of society across time and place. While marriage has changed over time it has, until now, remained sex-specific. Many people see great value in retaining a unique cultural and legal understanding of a unique relationship between a man and a woman.

While my view on marriage is informed by my faith, this belief is not confined to any one particular religion or brand of politics. Phrases and language like homophobic, anti-equality and regressive used against those who choose not to advocate same-sex marriage are politically loaded and deeply unhelpful. Just as a minority of Christians will seek to accommodate same-sex marriage to their faith, a significant minority within the LGBT community are not in favour of same-sex marriage.

This uncomfortable truth negates the simplistic mantra of ‘equality’ as the trump card for change. Discussions about marriage and the common good are not well served by simplistic campaign slogans. The rights, mental health, wellbeing and struggles of young people who identify as LGBT are important concerns for everyone in society. Conflating this with marriage is deeply unhelpful.

The campaign for ‘equal marriage’ implies that marriage is currently an inequality, an injustice to be corrected. Many people do not accept that the marriage relationship is an injustice. Some people say that nothing is lost for heterosexual couples if marriage is redefined. Marriage rights simply extend to more people. I disagree.

Married people can no longer identify in a uniquely heterosexual legal relationship. Gay couples can continue to do so through civil partnerships. The relationship which married couples entered into has been radically redefined around them because it is suddenly deemed to be a relationship of inequality. Same-sex marriage, while advocated on the basis of community and equality, is a product of reductionist, Western post-modern thinking.

Making marriage sex-neutral is a huge cultural loss to our community in this part of the world.

Opponents are told that redefinition is just about civil marriage and that Churches won’t have to marry same-sex couples. This belies a complete misunderstanding of what Christians believe marriage is all about. Our concerns go far beyond which ceremony the State will ask the Church to carry out, although I think there is very good cause to be concerned.

Marriage is much more than a wedding. We need to separate the ceremony from the marriage. One ceremony may be religious, the other not, but when the confetti has settled and someone describes themselves as married, the broad cultural and legal understanding is the same whether in Church, in work or in the pub.

The argument that Christians should not be concerned about marriage beyond the Church doors is like saying to many people concerned about welfare reform, ‘Don’t worry about the impact of welfare reform, as long as it doesn’t affect your home’.

The State has never been concerned with the quality of love between married couples and marriage defined between a man and a woman in itself casts no negative value judgement on the love or worth of any other relationship. The State is involved in the administration of marriage certificates, in much the same way as they issue birth and death certificates.

Marriage pre-dates the Christian Church and the modern State and in this moment the State is overreaching it’s powers by attempting to claim ownership of marriage and redefine it. Western states are seeking to reduce the total sum of marriage to a State sanctioned service, a legal contract.

The State is at liberty to address any perceived inequalities by legal modes of relationship which it does control, such as civil partnerships.

There are obviously issues around the petition of concern and we know that it is being looked at as part of the restructuring proposed in the Stormont House Agreement and the current talks. This is welcome. The DUP have come in for a lot of criticism for lodging a Petition of Concern in this latest vote.

It is worth remembering that the SDLP and Sinn Féin used a Petition of Concern to block welfare reform changes and proposals around the A5 dual carriageway. Alliance and the Green party also used one with Sinn Féin to oppose a proposed change in where abortions could be carried out. To be clear the Evangelical Alliance is not party political and the decision is ultimately a matter for the DUP.

However, they may well argue that same-sex marriage is a cross-community issue, having been contacted by both Catholics and Protestants asking them to vote against the motion. Despite Catholic Church Bishops issuing an open letter to every MLA, 100% of Nationalists in attendance voted in favour of same-sex marriage. There is clearly a democratic disconnect between some members in our community and the elected representatives they are traditionally associated with voting for.

Finally on the petition of concern, it has been argued that it exists to protect minorities from discrimination. Religious belief and sexual orientation are both protected Section 75 characteristics. Orthodox Catholic and Protestant Church teaching leads to an understanding of marriage as between men and women. Proponents of same-sex marriage cannot have their cake and eat it.

Under the current system and on the terms proposed by them, if opponents are a (cross-religious) minority then representatives reflecting this view are entitled to use a petition of concern.

As I said at the outset this is a deeply sensitive issue which touches upon identity, relationships and beliefs. My hope is that the public conversation continues in such a way that gives respect to these things we all care about.

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