Sexuality, Equality, and Freedom of Religion

Posted on September 12, 2012 at 11:09 am,

There’s been some controversy recently about a vote taken on Brighton and Hove council back in July on the issue of same-sex marriage. A Christian councillor by the name of Christina Summers spoke and voted against a a motion supporting the principle of extending the legal definition of marriage to same-sex couples. There was some controversy at the time, and a panel of inquiry was set up to look into the issue. On Monday it released its recommendation – that she should be expelled from the Green group of councillors (though not from the party). Its full report is due to be released on Thursday, and the group will presumably vote on whether to accept the recommendation at its next meeting.

In this post, I want to explain a bit more about what happened, and then talk about some principles.

What is Councillor Summers accused of?

Firstly, the issue was not simply that Councillor Summers spoke and voted against same-sex marriage. Green politicans are free to speak and vote against party policy as long as they make it clear what that policy is.

The issue is that she signed an equality pledge as part of her selection as a candidate. It’s been claimed that the pledge included explicit support for same-sex marriage, though the extract that’s been quoted on the local party’s FAQ simply talks about “upholding and advancing” the values of “equality for all people, regardless of race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social origin or any other prejudice … if selected as a candidate and if elected to public office.” Which, in my opinion, is perfectly compatible with Councillor Summers’ support of civil partnerships instead of marriage. This is the subject of the inquiry.

In addition to this, there have been some party members who claim that Councillor Summers’ views are incompatible with the party’s philosophical basis, which states:

A healthy society is based on voluntary co-operation between empowered individuals in a democratic society, free from discrimination whether based on race, colour, gender, sexual orientation, religion, social origin or any other prejudice.

and

The legitimate interests of all people are of equal value. The Green Party rejects all forms of discrimination whether based on race, colour, sex, religion, national origin, social origin or any other prejudice. We accept the need for social institutions to protect the interests of the powerless against the powerful.

They claim that these clauses necessarily mean support for same-sex marriage. Any view that equality can be achieved for gays and lesbians without same-sex marriage is considered to be bigoted and homophobic. However, even if we were to accept the premise that same-sex marriage is the only way to achieve equality on the basis of sexual orientation, the argument is highly flawed. Insisting that Councillor Summers should face disciplinary action for her views on this issue makes equality on the basis of sexual orientation more important than equality on the basis of religious belief. Becoming a Green councillor should not mean that you lose the right to talk about (and vote on) the basis of your religious beliefs.

Christian Principles

The Bible does not teach same-sex marriage

Before writing this article I had a look online for Christian arguments in favour of same-sex marriage. I couldn’t find a single one that even attempted to engage with what the Bible says directly about marriage. There was a lot of engagement with the passages that talk about gay sex, but the arguments about marriage itself were based on vague generalities. I think the main reason for this is that when the Bible talks about marriage it unambiguously means an opposite-sex relationship. Christians should view same-sex marriages in the same way they view cohabitation. Furthermore, whatever happens to the legal definition of marriage, God’s definition of marriage will stay the same.

Society has a very different view of marriage to the church

Our society does not have a biblical view of marriage. People don’t see it as a life-long union. They think divorce is normal. Increasing numbers of people are making pre-nuptial agreements – deciding in advance how to split their possessions if and when they divorce. Adultery is seen as a fairly minor issue, and there are plenty of books, films, and TV series which portray adultery as a good thing. Perhaps the most obvious difference is this: my Christian friends would never consider moving in with their partner before they were married. My non-Christian friends would never consider marrying somebody until after they had started living together.

Christians cannot expect non-Christians to follow Christian morality

Those who don’t have a Christian faith clearly rarely have a Christian moral framework. And even if they did, in Romans 6:15-22 Paul explains that a key difference between Christians and non-Christians is that they are slaves to sin, whilst we have been set free and can now be slaves of righteousness. If that is our theology, then we clearly cannot expect non-Christians to live out Christian morality.

So what stance can we take?

To be honest, I’m still working out where I stand on the issue of same-sex marriage. Because society recognises same-sex relationships to be valid, it would be utterly absurd to deny same-sex couples legal recognition of their relationship. I think there are three possible approaches a Christian can take on the issue:

Advocate civil partnerships with equivalent rights to marriage

This is Christina Summers’ position. Everybody gets equal legal rights and recognition, but the definition of marriage is not changed. In theory, this gives both sides of the debate what they want. In practice, the gay rights lobby is not happy – often seeing this arrangement as akin to apartheid.

Not object to gay marriage

At the moment, UKIP and the BNP are the only national parties who do not officially back gay marriage. Which means that the gay rights lobby has probably won this battle. It’s only a matter of time before the law is changed. Society no longer has a Christian view of marriage, and we should simply let the government adapt to our culture’s definition. The best argument I’ve come across for this view comes from my friend Jon Chilvers, who argues that the church has forfeited our right to a say on gay marriage.

Advocate that the government drop any legal definition of marriage

This view, which I first saw advocated by Anthony Smith, suggests that we could solve the problem by removing the word marriage from law. The state would register civil unions, and everyone could choose whether to consider them marriages or not. Society is divided on what marriage means, and taking away the government’s ability to choose sides might take all the heat and emotion out of the debate.

7 Comments