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Friday, July 13, 2012

Bmag July 10th 2012 - Definition of marriage

What I don’t understand about the gay marriage debate is the claim the church has on the concept of marriage.

When Nikki and I were planning our 1996 wedding, there appeared to be two clear choices – a religion-free declaration of love and commitment before a celebrant, or a wedding under God in a place of worship. We opted for the former and were married at Mt Coot-tha Lookout, witnessed by friends and family and, to add to the atmosphere and our memories, a dozen or so happy-snapping tourists!

I’ve never considered that our marriage has anything to do with God. It’s a contract between Nikki, me and the Registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages. Yet, those in the church who are arguing against same-sex marriage insist that marriage is and must remain between a man and a woman because the Bible says so. In other words, whether you choose a church wedding or not, you are still agreeing to religious terms and conditions.

This fundamental point has been going round and round in my head for months, driving me to come up with a new way forward on the issue of same-sex marriage. My first idea was to get rid of marriage completely. We would just have civil partnerships or registered relationships, whatever you want to call them. No religion, no arguments. Man and woman, man and man, woman and woman, everyone could enter a legal partnership with whomever they loved. We would no longer have to agree or disagree with the church-argued concept of ‘the devaluing of marriage’ because there would be no more ‘marriage’.

However, I can see how it wouldn’t exactly be a compromise. If the church feels such a strong connection to marriage, it’s not something that can be just taken away from it. So here’s what I’ve come up with. We need two different types of marriage, to be known as a Church Marriage and a Civil Marriage. A Church Marriage would remain between a man and a woman – unless religious leaders one day decided otherwise. A Civil Marriage would include same-sex couples.

If we’d had the option back in 1996, Nikki and I would have chosen a Civil Marriage. Simple as that. The wedding would still have taken place atop Mt Coot-tha, the tourists would still have snapped photographs of our happy day, and we would still have been happily married for 16 years and counting. Admittedly, there is a non-religious option available to couples, both gay and straight. And I hear that scores of heterosexual couples have indeed entered these civil partnerships (recently renamed registered relationships) since their introduction this year. But I think most couples would still rather be ‘married’ and I don’t see how the church can continue to claim exclusive ownership of that seven-letter word.

Of course, this would still leave out gay couples hoping for a church-sanctioned marriage. But you have to concede that membership of a club – and that’s what church is – means adhering to the rules of that club. And, for now at least, church leaders seem quite happy with the ‘marriage is between a man and a woman’ rule. What do you think of my idea of having Church Marriage and Civil Marriage? What other way forward can you see? I’ll include some of your suggestions in my next column in a fortnight.

As a nation, we have to find the answer because the question isn’t going away. The ABC’s Head of Religion and Ethics, Scott Stephens, recently told my 612 ABC Brisbane Breakfast audience: “Increasingly you’re hearing political leaders being addressed quite forthrightly with ‘Where do you stand on gay marriage?’. For many people this is a political and even moral litmus test.” Even businesses are being forced to take sides, as we saw with the boycott of Gloria Jeans over its links to the Hillsong Church and the Australian Christian Lobby.

Says Scott Stephens: “Because of the feverishness of the debate, because there’s so much moral and political investment in it, it does mean there’s going to be collateral damage and anybody who’s associated with whichever is regarded as being the wrong side of the debate can get so easily caught up within it.” Email me your comments about the marriage debate at the address below.

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