Thursday, 8 September 2011

Where now for marriage?

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Peter Tatchell campaigns for gay marriage at the 2010
London Pride event
Over on our main site we have a piece by the leading human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell, in which he outlines the aims of the Equal Love campaign, which is calling on the government to end the twin bans on gay marriage and heterosexual civil partnerships. As part of the campaign, four gay couples have applied for (and been refused) marriage licences, while four heterosexual couples have applied for civil partnerships, and an application has subsequently been made to the European Court of Human Rights.

As Richard Hull, who was refused a licence to marry his partner David Watters in Greenwich last year, explains, the campaign revolves around the simple matter of equality:
“If we live in a country where we are supposed to have equal rights regardless of our sexuality, why is it necessary for the gay community to be relegated to a separate institution, civil partnerships? We should have the same access to civil marriage as heterosexual couples. The ban on gay marriage should be overturned because, until it is, we are still not truly equal citizens.

“Civil partnerships are a recent invention, which create a divide between homosexual and heterosexual couples. They are a legal form of segregation, much like apartheid but based upon sexual orientation rather than race."
The campaign (to which you can add your voice by signing this petition) is confident of success in the European Court case but, for evidence of how far there is to go in overturning entrenched prejudice around the issue, look no further than the words of Cardinal Keith O'Brien, the head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, who just yesterday expressed his opposition to any move by the Scottish government to legalise gay marriage:
"The Church esteems the institution of marriage as the most stable building block upon which any family can rest. 
The view of the Church is clear, no government can rewrite human nature; the family and marriage existed before the State and are built on the union between a man and woman.

Any attempt to redefine marriage is a direct attack on a foundational building block of society and will be strenuously opposed."
Marriage seems to be the issue of the day on our website, as the other article we've published is a column from our new issue by the American writer Pamela Haag, who asks whether humanists should rejoice in the demise of marriage. While some may think so, Haag offers a defence of matrimony, suggesting that marriages underpinned by secular values are often more successful than those built on religion: 
"I’ve got a quirky optimism about marriage. There’s a case to be made for it – and we shouldn’t cede that case to religion. Traditional marriage is our institution, too. It’s a civil contract, and we need a humanist “defence of marriage” to match the religious one.

In fact, our case for marriage is already being made, but silently. It happens in actual marriages, rather than in political rhetoric. We tend to talk about marriage in black and white terms, but we live marriage in ambivalent shades of grey. And in this world of real marriages, as I discovered interviewing dozens of couples, improvisation, compassion, flexibility and even ingenuity are happening.

Furthermore, these thoroughly human qualities of innovation and adaptability are defending traditional marriage more successfully, it seems, than the rhetoric of traditional marriage, if new divorce and marriage statistics are any indication. In the US, “Bible Belt” states with the most traditional marriage values have the highest divorce rates. Also, an unprecedented marriage class gap has emerged. Better-educated, more affluent Americans, who tend to be more secular, are both getting married and staying married longer."
So do humanists have any use for marriage? Very interested to hear your views on this – please do share in the comments.
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