This one will run and run until we acknowledge the oversized elephant in the room: the established church. And then laugh loudly in its face.
The first thing I will say is that there should not necessarily be anything inevitably contradictory about gay marriage and religious freedom. I refuse to assume that all religious people are homophobic because to do so would be an unfair generalisation. There are many religious people who have no problem with gay marriage and I have met some of them.
In fact, there are many godless types who are also against gay marriage or gay rights generally. Unlike the religious, though, the godless are forced to justify their prejudices rather than hide behind scripture.
This was well demonstrated during an LBC radio phone-in on Sunday 11 March 2012. One caller announced to the host, Andrew Pierce (who is openly homosexual and sometimes refers to himself as a Catholic/lapsed Catholic) that he was an atheist who was opposed to gay marriage (and some other aspects of gay equality, I think). Pierce didn’t seem too sure how to handle this, because stripped of a protective religious veneer the caller came across as what he was: prejudiced.
The inescapable reality, of course, is that a good proportion of the objection to gay marriage is religious: many religious people, and many religious leaders who try to speak on behalf of their fellow believers, do have a problem with gay marriage. A rather large problem. And I say they have every right to express that view.
Conventional wisdom might suggest that where there are two seemingly competing interests – in this case, freedom from discrimination on the one hand versus religious freedom on the other – the equitable solution must be some kind of compromise, a half-way house.
Negative. I say the solution is to give both parties what they want.
There is one solution here: let religion be no business of the state and let the state be no business of religion.
The problem arises where a religious institution is a manifestation of the state or has special state privileges, and the obvious example to offer here is our established church, the Church of England, with all the privileges that come with its unique (as in weird) place in our constitution, such as faith schools, and clerics in the legislature.
When a country has an official religion, like ours, this gives all religions a special status. Those other religions demand and are granted their own privileges, and so we end up with Roman Catholic state schools, Muslim ones, Hindu ones and Sikh ones.
Being a manifestation of the state ought to mean that an institution is subject to equalities legislation but sadly this is not the case, as anyone who wants to work in a faith school or who wants to send their offspring to one will tell you.
So, here is that solution in full:
1. Disestablish the Church of England, tomorrow. Actually, why delay? Do it today.
2. The state would provide one form of civil union, and this would be the same for straight and gay couples. This would most probably be known colloquially as ‘marriage’, in the same way that civil partnerships are now generally referred to as ‘gay marriage’, and in the same way a union of a straight couple joined together solely in a civil registry office is also commonly referred to as ‘marriage’, but there would not and should not be any religious character to this ‘one civil union for all’. It would be purely civil, legal and secular.
3. If the couple are content with the state-provided civil union and don’t want a religious blessing, that’s fine. They would get drunk, throw an overpriced party, see relatives they don’t like or even know and then walk into the sunset to enjoy their forty years of misery in peace.
4. If the couple also wanted a religious union, that would be their business, but there would be nothing legally binding about that religious union as far as the state were concerned.
5. Whether a couple – gay or straight – are entitled to be ‘married’ under the rules of a particular religion or denomination would be a matter for that religion or denomination alone. It would not be a matter for the state. Church A might refuse to ‘marry’ gay couples. Big deal. They go to Church B. Or they start their own church, Church C.
A religious organisation would therefore be nothing more than a private club, free to set its own rules. There is nothing to stop someone – let’s call him Eric Pickles – from forming a private club tomorrow for overweight, Conservative, evangelical Christian, heterosexual, white gentlemen from the north of England, and nor should there be. I would wholeheartedly take to the streets to defend the freedom of association of Eric Pickles to form a club along those lines, but I say that a club with those membership rules, or any other discriminatory membership rules, should not be a manifestation of the state, should not benefit from state privileges, and should not provide services to the public.
That club could even call itself a religion or a denomination and be entitled to conduct ‘marriage’ ceremonies, which would not be binding in law (for that would be the exclusive business of the state) but those ceremonies would be in accordance with club rules.
The club could even appoint who it considers the most important or well-qualified of its members to hold special constitutional positions within that club. They could be called bishops. Or rooks. Or, if the club wanted to recognise gay ‘marriage’ in its rules, they could even be called queens.
A simple solution, then, which would require some religious leaders to do one simple thing: agree to forfeit their privileges of state sponsorship. I refuse to call this a compromise because forfeiting a privilege is not a compromise; it is the creation of a level playing field. If a religion is part of the state then it cannot pick and choose its own rules, but if it is a private club then it can.
Do you think the religious will willingly give up their privileges? Do you think many religious people, and especially those who hold power, will gladly come to the following conclusion?
“Fair enough, this state sponsorship lark was a good gig while it lasted, but we’re on our own now. I suppose we got a good head start. We don’t have our privileges any longer but at least we can do whatever we want, such as not letting those filthy homosexuals into our club. May they rot in hell forever, slowly. Amen.”
Not on your nelly. Like Eric Pickles, religious leaders will want their cake and they will want to eat it.
To finish, how about a secular version of “Love the sinner, hate the sin”:
“Love religious freedom. Hate religious privilege.®”