by Kevin Hague
Marriage equality is about basic fairness. It is a pretty basic principle of law that discrimination that disadvantages a particular group based on irrelevant criteria is unacceptable, particularly when it is practised by the State. Louisa Wall’s bill to redefine marriage to exclude discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity is about eliminating exactly this sort of problem. The Marriage Act 1955 (or rather its interpreatation by the Courts) creates a particular kind of endorsement of a relationship between two people who love and are committed to each other, which discriminates against big categories of people. This discrimination has no rational purpose and is based on criteria which are irrelevant to the civil institution of marriage. It needs to go.
I fully appreciate that there are some people who hold religious views about homosexuality that are negative, but it is important to understand that marriage is, in fact, two different things. On the one hand it is a religious sacrament, and I recognise that, arising from this, some churches may object to marrying same-sex couples for doctrinal reasons. The intention behind the Bill is absolutely to continue to allow such churches to decide whom they will and will not marry. However, marriage is also a civil institution, and this civil institution must be based on the principles of law, rationality and natural justice. New Zealand is not a state where law is or should be determined by religious doctrine.
Some respond by saying that the more elegant solution would be to repeal the Marriage Act, removing the State from marriage altogether and making civil unions the sole civic institutional formalisation of relationships, in an entirely non-discriminatory way. That is another way of achieving fairness, but John Key is absolutely right when he notes that we do not start with a blank slate; we start with the real world that we live in. In that real world, there are very many currently married New Zealanders who would resent the disestablishment of that status, to give just one reason why this is not a smart way to proceed. While allowing same-sex couples to marry does not harm currently married couples in any way whatsoever, abolishing the civic institution of marriage very likely does.
So why aren’t civil unions enough? Some MPs, especially (it seems) those who actually voted against them, argue that gay and lesbian couples should be happy to settle for civil unions. They say that civil unions have the same legal effect as marriages. Well that’s not true. Couples in civil unions may not adopt children, for example. Civil unions are not recognised by some overseas jurisdictions. But, here’s the main point: how would heterosexual people feel if they had only civil unions open to them but same-sex couples could enter civil unions or marry as they chose? Because how lesbian and gay New Zealanders feel is this: like second class citizens.
I have blogged before about the relationship between anti-gay prejudice and discrimination and some of the negative outcomes facing young queer people in areas like suicide, depression and alcohol and other drug use. The message that the State currently sends through this discriminatory law undermines these young people and fuels and gives heart to prejudice. That is why it must go. A law that treats all couples equally does the reverse: it undermines prejudice, it empowers the marginalised and it creates a healthier and happier society.
John Key has also noted that he can’t see how same-sex couples being married affects his own marriage with Bronagh in any way. Indeed. This is a law change that will bring direct benefit to some people, indirect benefit to many, and harm to none at all. About time isn’t it?
It looks like the Bill’s First Reading will most likely be on August 29th. More than twice as many New Zealanders support this Bill as oppose it, and it has majority support in essentially every demographic. Amongst younger New Zealanders, support stands at around 80%. MPs will need to decide which side of history they wish to stand on. You might like to help them.