What’s in a name?

This week parliament voted in favour of allowing homosexual couples to marry, although it is noteworthy that more than half of the Conservative MPs voted against the proposal. If you missed it the segment of the BBC’s Question Time that covered this subject is well worth a watch – both for the points raised and the strength of feeling in the debate.

Many of the MPs opposed to the bill argue that marriage is by definition between a man and a woman and they are simply defending one of our oldest traditions. The problem is that traditions and moral beliefs evolve in society. The royal succession laws have been altered to take no account of gender in primogeniture – is that not an old tradition? In the 17th century it was widely believed that animals were incapable of thought or feeling and their welfare should be given no consideration. The cries of dogs unfortunate enough to become subjects for live dissection were explained as mechanical reactions. Society moved on so it is no longer acceptable to inflict pain on animals for sport. The ‘tradition’ argument doesn’t really hold water, instead it begins to look like a cover story for opinions that people dare not publicly voice for fear of being accused of bigotry.

The other argument is that the introduction of civil partnerships gave same-sex couples the same legal rights as heterosexual couples and that should have been the end of it. On the face of it, it does seem reasonable to argue that equality has been achieved, but are civil partnerships a rose by another name or a ruse? I would argue for the latter because whilst it’s reassuring to know that you can see your partner if they are in hospital and have tax breaks, that’s not the point. I don’t have any personal experience here but I hope that’s not the first thing you think of when making a lifetime commitment to someone! Marriage has a status of being a lifetime commitment to the person you love, it has gravity and a sense of enduring that civil partnerships just haven’t established yet. It means that heterosexual marriages are seen as somehow ‘better’ than homosexual partnerships, which isn’t equal at all.  It is interesting that the image of marriage as a central pillar of society remains, even amongst the high divorce rates and decisions not to get married.

Then there is the question of people wanting to include their faith in a ceremony to formalize their relationship. I think religion is a very personal thing and religious freedom is as important to protect as sexual freedom, for that reason no-one should be forced to marry a couple if it is not in accordance with their beliefs. I don’t understand why religious groups feel the need to make unilateral decisions for their clergy; surely if rejection of homosexuality is so central to a faith each member can make that decision for themselves? As is usually the case everyone interprets religion differently and just as it’s possible to be gay and religious, it’s possible to be a minister and believe that all relationships between consenting adults are equally worth celebrating.

I don’t consider myself religious (although I do dabble occasionally) but in my head I imagine getting married in a church, precisely because to me that is how you make a promise to someone ‘til death do us part’. Now I use the Lord’s name in my daily life in a host of imaginative ways that don’t just break one of the 10 commandments but shatter it, I’m sure I do other things I shouldn’t as well. I would respect anyone’s decision not to let me get married in their church because I’m happy with my morals and would respect theirs.

Ultimately the people you love and the way you choose to show that love is largely personal and private but surely in 2013 we can give people choice and freedom to make their own decisions without worrying that the great big pillar of marriage will fall and be lost.

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