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Marriage Equality and Freedom of Religion

In H G Wells’ famous short story The Country of the Blind, a mountaineer named Nuñez climbs a steep remote mountain but falls down the other side into a country whose inhabitants are all blind from birth, a disease having ravaged their vision many generations earlier. As the only sighted person in their little village, he starts to glory in his potential power and recites the refrain over and over, “in the country of the blind, the one-eyed man is king”. However, Wells sets us up for an enormous and unexpected twist, for instead of Nuñez ruling the people as he desired, he becomes distrusted by them and they conclude that his stories of vision and sightedness are but mad ravings. When he tries to marry one of the young women, the village elders decide that he should have his eyes gouged out so he can be free from his folly and his madness, and be just like them. Earnest, limited, blind and wrong.

Peter Kurti, Sydney Anglican priest, which locates him theologically, is also a researcher at the Centre for Independent Studies in religion. His brief, according to their website , says “The program examines the implications of a liberal approach to religion in civil society and investigates the capacity of that society to maintain freedom for expression of religious values”. As society gradually abandons a traditional Christian worldview and takes on a more secular and humanist-centred values-based ethical system, Kurti and his people are worried about the effects this will have on religion, ie., traditional Christianity, à la Sydney Anglicanism.

Thus, entering the marriage equality fray as an opponent of change, he has written a piece on the ABC News wesbite called ‘Same-sex marriage is more complicated than the Yes case admits’. In this piece, he advocates a No vote in the coming survey by claiming that religious freedoms will be curtailed if marriage equality is legislated in Australia. His argument is couched in the language of fear, the language of ‘what if’, the language of catastrophisation. He is careful to sound dispassionate, so he does not use florid language or to over-egg the pudding so to speak, but it is ‘slippery slope’ and fear-mongering nevertheless. You know, if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck — — — -. Of course, his is not the only voice of rejection. There are the Catholic Bishops and of course, the ubiquitous Lyle Shelton from the extremist group, the Australian Christian Lobby.

Here Kurti is at his most forthright.

Schools, charities, and other faith-based not-for-profits, as well as ordinary business people such as bakers, florists, and photographers who wish to uphold the traditional meaning of marriage need to be protected from discrimination and attack if the law on marriage does change.

Kurti and his ilk are frightened by existing anti-discrimination legislation. They’re not frightened of the laws as they exist now, they’re frightened that they won’t be extended further. Now the existing legislation, as well as the legislation in the proposal from Senator Dean Smith, continues to allow for ministers of religion and their churches and facilities to be exempt from anti-discrimination law. Right now, a minister of religion can refuse to marry any couple straight or gay if they don’t accept the validity of the union on some grounds, perhaps religious or social. In a marriage equality Australia, that exemption would stay.

The Smith proposal goes further, on the advice of a multi-party Senate inquiry, to put forward a special register of religious celebrants, distinct from all the other duly authorised civil celebrants, who would also be exempt. Personally, I’m not in favour of such an exemption, as celebrants by definition are the go-to State facilitators for marriage when people, and that’s 70% of marrying Australians, don’t want a church wedding. So you would assume such celebrants would be comfortable with a non-religious ceremony, otherwise what are they doing in the job? But, if it gets marriage equality through the Parliament, I can live with it, and am happy to let the celebrant association sort it out among themselves. So the religious conservatives actually gain in that instance and still get their exemption.

But it’s where it goes to next that they are up in arms about. They want ordinary citizens to be exempt from anti-discrimination laws. Not just bakers and florists and photographers and marquee owners attached to the wedding industry, but anybody at all: Jo and Jane Ordinary, who don’t agree with marriage equality. They want everyday citizens, who are not allowed to discriminate by law on the basis of age, sex, ethnicity, or disability, to be able to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation. Welcome to the country of the blind.

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So allow me to make the opposite argument. And allow me to premise my argument based on the existing science of human sexuality by enumerating a few indisputable facts that I see as absolutely foundational.

Now I would argue that, given our twenty first century understanding based on genetics, biology, physiology, psychology, sociology, anthropology and history, and yes, even spirituality, we now comprehend human sexuality so much better than we ever did, even just fifty years ago, and because of that more enlightened understanding, we should advance our societies to reflect this understanding. Listening to Kurti, Shelton, Davies, Fisher and others of their ilk, all essentially fundamentalists in their own way, for they will permit no alternate understanding of life that challenges their worldview, I hear a brand of Christianity that is largely being rejected and abandoned for either a more open and inclusive Christian faith or a secular standard of ethics and belief.

What Kurti is arguing for essentially is exemption from the law that privileges their theological stance on homosexuality over, above and before the scientific and scholarly view as outlined above. For them, their religion trumps our psycho-biologic reality and it should be imposed on wider society.

For the evangelicals, like Kurti, gay sexuality is a sin. To express our sexuality is a sin. They see it as a rejection of God. They see it as a profanity. They see it as unnatural. Many still claim it is a choice. They persist in calling it a ‘lifestyle’. They believe that unless we repent, we will not enter the kingdom of heaven. The more strident of them will continue to call us ‘an abomination’. They believe gay sexuality to be inferior to heterosexuality which they see as God-given, while homosexuality, as they call it, is the result of the Fall, in other words, man‘s sin. They believe that gay people need healing as they see our sexual orientation as a sickness or deviation off the right path. And the pentecostals among them actually believe we are possessed by demons, evil spirits, and require exorcism. This paragraph is Fundamentalism 101. It is no exaggeration.

When you are a gay person and you grow up with these views as being normative, there are consequences. They contaminate your life, even more so if you happen to be a person of faith, like they did mine as a young man. I lost over twenty years to this traditional model. Thousands of gay people of faith around the world and here in Australia have not been able to cope and have taken their own lives. Yes, because of these teachings. Some of these ancient thoughts have laid the bedrock of modern societal homophobia.

Now I may not like it, but I have lived with this hateful stuff being spoken inside the churches and at the mid-week Bible study for decades. According to Australian law, they have a right to express these opinions and teach these doctrines as God’s truth, and we all in a secular pluralist Australia have to abide by that. And I do abide by that. But that does not mean that I have to like it. Far from it, I actually consider this stuff hate-speech. It has been so destructive to incalculable numbers of people that it is too terrible to contemplate the numbers of LGBTI people , young and old, who have been harmed. Of course, it is all wrapped up in sacralised language, in the language of prayer, the language of spirituality, even with Bible verses attached, but it is hate-speech nevertheless. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck — — — -.

The Catholics are no better. Their official teaching is that we gay people are “intrinsically disordered” and “inclined to moral evil”. Their doctrine says that we should repent and live celibate lives for the rest of our lives or marry someone of the opposite sex, never mind the trauma such a marriage inevitably produces. The bishops have no choice in their hierarchical system but to toe the party line, so they do. Yet, many grassroots Catholics in their own churches just quietly ignore the bishops and the teaching magisterium in Rome and welcome LGBTI people as equal brothers and sisters. And many Catholics in perfectly good conscience will vote Yes in the survey.

Now really, many Christian churches are turning away from such extremity. They have done their homework. They have read the science. They have read the scholarship in theology, Biblical Studies, linguistics and history. The majority of Christian people in Australia support marriage equality. Of course, they do. They see it as no brainer because they personally know gay people and understand that we are not abominations.

Since I wrote Being Gay Being Christian (Exisle, 2012), which was received very positively here and around the world, I have seen many churches wrestle with their doctrines over the sexuality issue and have real breakthroughs at sometimes enormous cost. However, there has also been a push-back by conservatives who have called me an abomination, a heretic, a back-slider, quoted Matthew 18: 6 at me “If anyone causes one of these little ones — those who believe in me — to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea”, called me to repent, to give up my “lifestyle”, called me a sodomite, asked me whether I had read the Bible, etc etc. Tedious, tiresome and relentlessly judgmental. If the conservatives and the evangelicals like Kurti and Shelton had their homophobia miraculously stripped away, would there be anything left of their Christianity?

If the fundamentalists want religious exemptions carved out for them over and above those that are already there, I would oppose that. I think if you are in business as an ordinary Australian, you should be willing to do commerce with all Australians, not just the ones you like. Such a change would bring about a two-tier ranking of Australians, the straight world and the LGBTI world, where the former is privileged by the provision of what would essentially be ‘religious law’, and the latter is discriminated against. That is not the kind of Australia I want. If you’re in business, like I am, you should be able to do business with everyone. And if you can’t, you are probably in the wrong job.

In the twenty first century and with our understanding of human sexuality:

The anti-anti-discriminationists don’t like it when we use that word about them. In high dudgeon, they quickly claim victimhood and hurl insults that we are bullies. The nasty gays are bullies and thugs. But standing up for your rights against a centuries-old historic oppressor is not bullying. These days, I say to fundamentalists, keep your teaching inside your churches if you are so inclined. But don’t expect that a modern secular and well-educated Australia is going to think that these types of declarations about LGBTI people are anything but out of touch and harmful.

Our constitution recognises your right to worship freely and to believe what you want to believe. As far as I am concerned, you can believe that I as a gay man am sinful, rejecting of God, unnatural and not leading the best life that God would have for me. But I know you’re wrong. And this is not Iran, this is Australia. We do not live in a theocracy. So when you come into the public sphere, in secular institutions like civil marriage and state schools and hospitals, you should not have an automatic right to impose your doctrines on us. It is not okay to tell young transgender people to “get over it, you’ll be fine, you’re just confused”. That is ignorant and harmful and dangerous. It’s not okay to tell young gay people they are sinful because of a sexual orientation that they have no control over. That is ignorant and harmful and dangerous. And it’s not okay for you tell me that I cannot get married to my partner of seventeen years in a non-religious civil ceremony because of your religious beliefs. That is beyond insensitivity. It is arrogance and hubris.

Marriage equality is widely supported across the nation. The majority of Christians support it. Your religion is protected. It is not right or socially cohesive to impose one rule for the rest of us and a different rule for you in the civil and commercial world. You will need to adapt. The Church has done it before, you can do it again.

We do not need blind fundamentalists of any persuasion gouging out the eyes of the rest of the nation. If it’s alright with you, I’d rather keep my eyes, fixed on the road ahead and trying my best to make our country a fairer, more just and more humane place for all of us.

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Dr Stuart Edser

Dr Stuart Edser

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Dr Stuart Edser: Psychologist. Author - Being Gay Being Christian. Pianist. Amateur philosopher. LGBTI issues. Aus politics. Theology. Sci Fi. Classical music.