Same sex marriage: same old prejudices

Marriage“We’re not homophobic”, say MPs who vote against legal equality for homosexuals despite gold-plated legal safeguards ensuring religious freedom.

On 5 February 2013 same-sex marriage cleared a significant hurdle when the House of Commons voted 400 to 175 in favour of the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill.

I watched much of the debate and found many of the speeches in favour of the Bill, from all parties, very moving. It’s not often I get the chance to say I’m extremely proud of our elected officials but this was one such occasion. Seeing politicians put aside their differences to ensure legal equality for the citizens they govern was a rather pleasant sight. I look forward to a similar approach on Baroness Cox’s Arbitration and Mediation Services (Equality) Bill, but I won’t hold my breath.

Predictably, there was some robust opposition to the marriage Bill from all parties but in particular from the Conservatives. Maybe I missed something but I don’t recall one strongly-worded speech against the Bill that didn’t have a religious element to it. What does that tell you? Well it tells me that religion provides ideal cover for depriving homosexuals of legal equality in an acceptable way. As I’ve said before, there are also unpalatable views towards homosexuals amongst the non-religious; it’s just that they have to work much harder to justify their prejudices. The religious get a free ride.

I tried to imagine how extra-terrestrials landing on planet Earth would have perceived the debate. Freedom of religion is crucial in any democracy, but people exposed for the first time to the same-sex marriage debate taking place in Parliament would be forgiven for thinking religious people had historically had their rights infringed by homosexuals. The reality has been quite the opposite.

This Bill, rather than reversing that historical victim/aggressor relationship between homosexuals and the religious, seeks to create a level playing field designed to keep everyone happy. Listening to the intricacies of the Bill’s “quadruple legal lock”, though, our hypothetical alien visitors might think a mob of violent gay activists were poised to force an imam to marry a priest in a synagogue, in a ceremony presided over by a smug Peter Tatchell whilst Sir Elton John played a few tunes on a pink piano, and that the only thing standing in the way of these militant gays and their agenda of coerced gay marriage was brave MPs and legal locksmiths.

To the best of my knowledge homosexuals don’t actively recruit new members, they don’t bring up their children to be gay, they don’t run homosexual schools with discriminatory criteria in favour of gay parents and gay teachers, and they don’t knock on people’s doors on a Sunday afternoon to explain the benefits of gayness. Unfortunately I can’t say the same for the religious. Remind me again how giving homosexuals legal equality adversely affects my or anyone else’s rights, in such a way that is more serious than the privileges granted to the religious?

Some opponents of same-sex marriage were keen to stress their objection to the proposed legislation didn’t make them homophobes (perish the thought; doth they protest too much, etc). Well in principle I’d actually be willing to go along with that. The same-sex marriage debate does raise important issues of religious freedom which have to be addressed, and my position is that the best way of balancing freedom of religion with the right of homosexuals not to be discriminated against is disestablishment and secularism generally.

But assuming any proposed solution balances those rights, and this Bill does, then on what basis can anyone legitimately object to granting legal equality to homosexuals whilst claiming not to be homophobic? (If anything the Bill goes too far in trying to preserve religious freedom because it specifically forbids the Church of England from carrying out same-sex marriages, and so it unnecessarily infringes the religious freedom of CofE members who are in favour of same-sex marriage.)

If the religious can argue that depriving homosexuals of legal equality doesn’t make them homophobic, then I can argue that black is white: I can argue that depriving black people of legal equality doesn’t make me a racist. But no, we’re expected to take the religious at their word when they assure us they’re not homophobic – just before they scuttle along to vote “Nay” to a crucial piece of equalities legislation giving homosexuals legal parity. Nothing more, nothing less, just parity.

Of course the battle isn’t over. The Bill must still pass through the House of Lords. No doubt the twenty six elderly, male, ostensibly heterosexual Church of England bishops who sit in our upper chamber as a matter of constitutional right (something which doesn’t really fit into the “religious persecution” narrative) will have a thing or two to say about this legislation. Not that any of them could be accused of being homophobic, though – they’re just “traditionalists”.

And even if the Bill finally does become law, I dread to see the quantity of fresh meat David Cameron will need to throw to the religious lobby as an act of bloody appeasement. I suppose that’s horse-trading. But for the time being our Prime Minister deserves credit for persisting with his vision of gay equality. Good on him, I say.