SSM – Not Again

Friends, this is a post I’d prefer to avoid. Same-sex marriage (SSM) is not something I want to focus on. But we don’t always get to choose which issues to discuss. And SSM really is the issue of the times. Everyone agrees, even if they’re weary of the topic.

So I’ve been asked by church members about a recent opinion piece on SSM on The Drum – the (Australian) ABC’s Opinions blog. The article has attracted plenty of attention from Christians and others, much of it favourable.

It’s not hard to see why. The author – Andrew Tiedt – nails his colours to the mast. And he does it with a really friendly tone. Here’s his opening paragraph…

I’m a Christian. I go to church, I lead a Bible Study once a week, and I believe in the Bible and what it says. Consequently, I believe that homosexual sex is sinful.

In this respect, I am in exactly the same position as Mr Tiedt.

And in what follows, I stress that I’m speaking primarily to Christians who share the same beliefs: the authority of Scripture and therefore, a belief that homosexual sex is sinful. I’m happy to talk to others, of course, but this is a reformed evangelical blog and the aim of this article is not to debate the foregoing.

Given Andrew Tiedt’s views above, it might surprise you that the rest of the world is commenting positively on his article. But his headline explains why…

Legalise Gay Marriage, What’s the Harm?

And here’s his conclusion…

…I am not the only person in the country who thinks that you can believe homosexuality is sinful whilst also believing that gay people should be allowed to marry.

 

To all the homosexuals I am friends with, both in real life and online, as well as all the homosexuals who I haven’t met yet, I have this to say: Go! Be happy, and do what you want with your lives.

 

I have my beliefs. You have yours. We disagree, and that’s fine. I don’t need your approval to validate my beliefs, as I am sure you don’t need mine. If I ever get the chance I would love to tell you why I believe what I do, and I would love to return the courtesy.

 

I hope that one day you have the chance to marry.

[…]

We have legalised divorce. We have legalised homosexual sex. Adultery and sexless marriages have been around for centuries and the institution of marriage appears to have survived just fine.

[…]

Christians: there are gay people. LOTS of them. There always have been, and there always will be.

 

Most of them go about their lives quietly. If they are allowed to marry, it will not change anything. ANYTHING! So relax and let them get on with their lives. It’s not going affect your life, your faith or your morals in the slightest.

It’s an appealing argument, and I’ve already said I’d prefer to be talking about almost anything else. But as readers of this blog (or its predecessor) know, as a Christian, I have advocated a different conclusion, that we should not legislate in favour of SSM.

And I think Mr Tiedt’s friendly article is built on a couple of significant errors to do with his application of the concept of illegality and legality.

His basic claim is that…

Not everything that I think is sinful is illegal. And neither should it be.

He points out that there’s all sorts of behaviour many consider immoral, but which our society does not criminalise; not only adultery or homosexuality, but also gossip, deceitfulness, hatred, and prejudice.

In fact, Mr Tiedt, who is a lawyer, claims of his latter four examples that…

Every single one of them is 100 per cent legal.

But this seems to be a careless and imprecise statement.

I suspect some forms of gossip could fall into the category of slander and may be illegal under defamation laws. Certainly perjury and slander (where the statement is shown to be defamatory since untrue and harmful) are two forms of deceitfulness which are illegal in Australia.

Likewise, Australia has some quite tough hate speech laws making illegal certain forms of speech related to incitement of hatred or racial prejudice (e.g. the federal Racial Discrimination Act 1975 and the NSW Anti-Discrimination Act 1977. That’s why the public incitement to hatred of homosexuals as a category is also illegal.

So contrary to his claim, deceitfulness, hatred and prejudice (at least when expressed in certain concrete forms of speech) are not 100 per cent legal.

Mr Tiedt’s argument falters at this point on a significant error of fact. Some immoral activity is also illegal.

But that’s not the major error I wish to identify in his argument. No one in Australia, as far as I know, is arguing to make homosexuality illegal. I certainly do not.

Rather I believe he’s made a category error in his application of the categories of illegality and legality to recognising SSM. For laws can do more than determine whether an act is legal or illegal. Laws can also confer certain privileges to certain actions or situations.

For example, in Australia, only certain categories of parliamentarians (at the federal level, Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries and the Speaker) have the right to be called ‘The Honourable’. You might want to be called ‘Honourable’. You might think you deserve it, because you’re as good as any politician. (Fair enough!) But you can’t claim the title ‘Honourable’ for yourself!

And while anyone can style themselves as ‘Dr’ (though they are neither a medical practitioner nor a holder of a PhD), in Australia, the law prevents an unqualified person claiming to be a medical practitioner (§117, Health Practitioner Regulation National Law Act 2009), no matter how helpful they think their health advice might be!

Returning to the issue of SSM, Mr Tiedt correctly identified a number of activities which many people consider immoral, but which are legal in our society, such as adultery, pre-marital and homosexual sex.

However it’s a category error to insist that because an act is legal, this means we must also give all such acts special treatment.

We may not criminalise adultery, but neither do we give it special privileges at law. We do not pass laws to encourage it, any more than we pass laws to honour or protect deceitfulness.

To say it another way, just because something is legal does not mean it deserves special privileged status, if it does not meet the standards required for that status (as with the medical practitioner example).

But that’s what the push for SSM is doing. It wants to gain the honour attached at law to marriage for SS relationships.

But the marriage law is not mainly about proscribing immoral behaviour.

The marriage law is not even about ensuring justice in personal relationships. As I understand it, all legal disadvantages in terms of property, inheritance and related rights have already been removed in Australia in regards to SS relationships. And there are now relationship registers available to provide fair legal treatment of homosexual partnerships.

Instead the marriage law is about encouraging particular, beneficial, moral behaviour, namely by publicly regulating and honouring the lifelong union between one man and one woman.

In most circumstances, such a marriage has, inherent to the union, the possibility of childbirth. It is inherently different from a same-sex union, which cannot provide both and mother and a father. (Acknowledging my Christian convictions, which I share with Mr Tiedt, elsewhere in a previous article, I attempted to make this case in more general terms that marriage deserves a special privilege as a fundamental building block of society. I do not especially wish to revisit that argument here.)

We can agree that certain personal acts are not illegal, even though we disagree about the morality of those acts.

We can agree to disagree on such matters; genuinely to ‘live and let live’ at the personal and social level. And I condemn all hate speech directed towards gay and lesbian people.

But Christian brothers and sisters, none of that means logically means we must privilege those behaviours with a public honour that does not inherently belong to them.