John Mason, an SNP MSP (who happens to be one of my Regional List representatives) has recently come under fire for his call to have a discussion around exactly what the possibility of having full ‘gay marriage’ in Scotland would entail for organisations with specific religious stances. Despite being an issue that looked like it was going to blow up all over the news when it first came to light in the media, the focus was instead (perhaps fortunately) diverted to the rioting across England at the last minute.
Prima Facie, this may simply look like a case of right-wing, anti-gay sentiment, with even members of his own Party criticising Mason’s approach, but the issue is actually a lot more complicated than that. This is more than just a gay/anti-gay discussion. It’s about freedom of conscience. Whilst the media has simplified the issue in its coverage, the reality is that there are genuine and valid concerns around this matter that can be difficult to reconcile, and it is precisely for these reasons why there has to be a full discussion about the implications for the relationship between law and society as a whole.
Society and the law must strive and demand not just equality, but egalitarianism. A legal framework that discriminates against any section of the community which it holds together is inherently corrupt and must be challenged. At the same time, a State which dictates the beliefs, faith and even non-religious ideologies is one that must be resisted at all costs. (Orwellian imagery is tired, but not irrelevant to this point.)
So how do the two reconcile?
Contrary to the impression given by those sitting on either side of the fence, the freedom of conscience and belief is not one that is impossible to sit alongside the rights to be free from discrimination
Comparisons will inevitably be drawn with the previous refusal of Bed and Breakfast owners to allow gay couples to share a bed in their premises – a decision which was subsequently ruled as unlawful. The rationale behind the decision of the court in these cases was simple: If you engage in commercial transactions, open to all of society, you cannot opt-out of the bits of the law that you disagree with; discriminating against people purely because of their sexual orientation, race or anything else.
The same is true in this instance. The ‘risk’ to the churches is that if marriage becomes a legal right for homosexual couples, then refusal to participate in such a process could result in a court ruling against the religious group… seen then as an affront to their right to hold their own position.
The solution is actually fairly simple, but one which the churches are too cowardly and unwilling to adopt.
At present the church is afforded special legal status within Scots Law. This doesn’t just cover weddings, but for our purposes, it specifically provides for representatives of approved religions to give effect to the legal recognition of the marriage. The rest of the ceremony… the exchanging of rings… the kiss… the prayers… all of that stuff may well be symbolically important to the tradition and considerations of the people and denominations involved, but legally it has little relevance.
In order to retain their integrity and avoid the seemingly inevitable legal wrangling that is to come, as well as to send a clear message about state intervention in freedom of conscience, the church should renounce their special legal status to perform such ceremonies, and further… all the effects of it. If special privileges such as charitable status requires a subservience to the state, thus stifling the ability to effectively represent their position, then the connection should be severed. The Church should refuse to act as mere administrators of the law, and reclaim marriage as a religious recognition of the union of two people before God. In the same way that civil partnerships currently operate, where couples can fulfil the legal requirements of the ‘marriage’ at a Registry Office and then have a religious ‘celebration’ (legal term) afterwards, so the Church should apply this to all marriages.
In this way, individual congregations would be able to decide whose marriage they wish to celebrate as a community – be that dependent on gender, beliefs or anything else. There’s very little complaints about churches refusing to marry people at present who are of a different religious persuasion, but yet it is actually the same principle that is being called into question by this debate.
To argue for someone’s right to disagree with another person’s choice is not to be discriminatory, it is a necessary and important part of a society. To reserve your right to not participate in something you do not believe in whilst supporting the right of others to undertake a different choice is not contradictory, and to not support gay marriage as a result of your own convictions does not automatically render you anti-gay and homophobic.
I personally completely disagree with those in churches who believe that homosexuality is an issue to get hung up on, and infact flies in the face of the very teachings of Jesus. I’ve been fairly outspoken on this before, and you can look through previous postings to confirm that. However, I also completely (and consistently) defend the right of others to hold a different position… although that does not necessarily extend in its entirety to the sphere of legal interactions.