Religious groups, marriage and discrimination law
Today our glorious plasticine-faced leader David Cameron (of whom, you will no doubt have guessed, I am not a fan), held a reception in Downing Street for "leaders" of the gay community.
I could say a lot more on the politics of this event, but I shall confine my criticism to a single remark pointing out how those "leaders" were arbitrarily selected, filtered for their tameness and acquiescence to Tory LGBT policies, and as lacking in popular mandate from the wider LGBT community of Britain as any self-appointed religious "community leader" is.
This is not really what I want to talk about though. In front of his carefully assembled coterie of tame representatives, Cameron announced the new government's list of pledged commitments to LGBT rights for the coming parliament. There were several things on the list - some very lacklustre indeed, like a commitment to sort out the situation for men who were convicted of now-legal sex offenses over 40 years ago, some worthy but vague, like a generic pledge to tackle homophobic bullying in schools. No sign of what most LGBT people really want of course - full marriage rights with exactly the same legal instruments, nomenclature and procedures as opposite-sex couples. Which, I suspect, is why the most prominent proponent of full marriage equality in Britain today, Peter Tatchell, was not invited to Plasticine Dave's big gay love-in.
Anyway, such is to be expected from a list drawn up by recently converted ex-homophobe Theresa May, whose entirely sincere and not-at-all politically expedient Road to Damascus moment we should all heartily endorse.
The issue which shall be my topic for today, however, is Cameron's pledge to allow civil partnership ceremonies to be legally held in those churches and equivalent religious institutions that wish to hold them. Currently it is illegal to conduct a civil partnership in any kind of religious venue, however fluffy and welcoming and pro-gay it is. Candid Cameron thinks it should be legal. I kind of agree.
In his speech our glorious leader made it quite clear that religious groups would not be forced to conduct civil partnerships if they had moral objections to doing so. Most commentators seem to find this a reasonable and unremarkable clause, but I do not. It seems to me that religious institutions are offering a public service when they conduct marriages, and would likewise be doing so when offering the nauseating apartheid sop of civil partnerships. The fact that virtually all of them charge money for this service is telling. I do not think there should be a special get-out clause for religious institutions when they discriminate in offering any public services, including marriage services. An innkeeper or hotelier cannot claim conscientious homophobia as a valid legal defence if he refuses a gay couple a room for the night (however much Chris Grayling may wish otherwise), so why should a church be allowed such a defence when it refuses them a marriage?
What I am uncertain about is the extent to which religious groups are legally allowed to discriminate on other grounds when offering marriage services. Christian scripture, for instance, has strong prohibitions against mixed-race marriages ("miscegenation" in their delightful euphemistic idiom), which formed the basis for the American prohibition of mixed-race marriage until Loving vs. Virginia in 1967. Likewise, the Old Testament forbids disabled people from entering the temples. If modern priests and rabbis invoked these passages, and their history of racist and anti-disability conduct, to refuse a mixed-race couple or a disabled couple the benefit of their marriage services, would it be legal?
If not, the implication must surely be that our society's culture of unwarranted, uncritical respect for religious faith IS trumped by racial and disability equality but is NOT trumped by LGBT equality, and thus homophobia is considered socially acceptable where racism and anti-disabled sentiment is not.
There is also the issue of cross-religious marriage to consider. Should a catholic church be forced to marry a jewish couple if they request it? Or an Atheist couple? Should refusing to do so count as religious discrimination? It is, of course, highly unlikely that such a couple would ever make this request, but in marriages where the partners are of different religious affiliations, much more common. Should religious groups be allowed, by law, to have an exemption from religious discrimination in this, when nobody else is? The secular state cannot refuse to marry anyone after all - why should arbitrarily defined private hobby groups get such a right? Surely by allowing the religious to do so we implicitly perpetuate their attempts to divide up the world into segregated in-groups and out-groups, doing much harm to the common good? How is letting them persist in this form of social division any better than allowing them to run divisive faith schools?
Ironically enough, the simplest option would be Peter Tatchell's suggestion - to get religious groups out of ALL legally-binding marriage (and patronising pseudo-marriage) contracts and have marriage solely as the preserve of the state (which oversees all the legal rights and responsibilities after all). Failing this, giving same-sex couples full marriage rather than civil partnerships would render the question a moot one.
P.S. I have been accused of insensitivity in the past towards those actually in Civil Partnerships when displaying my overt hostility to the concept. I should hope that it goes without saying that my hostility is purely towards the patronising hypocrisy of calling them Civil Partnerships, and using a separate legal instrument to effect them, rather than towards the obvious committment and love shown by the participants. It is telling that in countries where there is no kind of same-sex legal partnership at all, nobody campaigns for "civil partnerships" or the equivalent - they campaign for marriage, pure and simple, and anything less is considered unacceptable. I consider it a consciousness-raising effort to point out how discriminatory such language is to the LGBT community. Language matters, as it is integral to our culture.