The Marriage Equality Bill and religion

One of the themes winding its way through the debate over marriage equality is the relationship between the church and the state. New Zealand has no official religion and great effort has been expended to keep the church out of law-making and the State out of religious matters.

So marriage presents an interesting set of issues, because it is both a religious institution (a sacrament in some denominations) and also a civil one. Two possible approaches to reconciling differences are to remove the church or the state entirely from marriage, but in New Zealand we have taken the view that both have legitimate roles.

While we speak of “the church”, that in fact conceals a considerable complexity. There is a multitude of faiths, denominations within faiths, and congregations within denominations. During the course of the debate over marriage equality it has become abundantly clear that opinions and practices concerning marriage vary very considerably. While the loudest church voice in the marriage equality debate has been from those Christian churches who wish not to marry same-sex couples, the select committee has also heard from many churches who wish to be able to marry same-sex couples and who are prevented from doing so by the current law.

When the Bill was introduced, its proponent, Louisa Wall, was absolutely clear that her intent was not to limit freedom of religious expression, and that has been the Select Committee’s driver also.

Some submitters, largely influenced by the lobby group Family First, which spread propaganda through conservative churches, believed religious freedom would be impacted in three ways. I respond to these concerns in this post:

1. Churches will not be forced to marry same-sex couples against their will

Section 29 of the Marriage Act authorises celebrants to marry couples, but explicitly does not oblige them to do so. One can easily imagine that there are many grounds upon which a particular church or a particular celebrant might object to marrying a particular couple, and since 1955 this provision has enabled them to decline to do so. In all of this time I am not aware of any decision to decline being challenged through the Courts, and it’s easy to see why: couples who wish to marry are looking for a positive experience, not one carried out grudgingly, against the celebrant’s will. Adding to the categories of couples who can marry does not alter, in any way, the law around celebrants declining to marry.

However, Family First found a barrister who thought there was a chance Courts would find that declining to marry a couple on the grounds of sexual orientation would be a breach of the Human Rights Act in relation to the provision of goods and services. While the Human Rights Commission – who would be the body to investigate any complaint of discrimination – has been crystal clear that it would not uphold a complaint of discrimination against a celebrant who declined to solemnise a couple, and the majority of legal opinion supports the HRC position, some reputable legal sources have also said that it’s not possible to say that no court would interpret the existing law in the way that Family First (and many religious folk) fear.

Most of the submissions against Louisa’s Bill expressed the fear that churches would be forced to marry same-sex couples even if it offends their genuine religious belief. While the real risk of this was assessed as being very small indeed, it was clearly nobody’s intention (sorry, not quite nobody – there was one submission arguing churches should be compelled to marry any couples who wished to marry and were legally entitled to do so) that the state should compel churches to act against their beliefs. For that reason the select committee added a clause to put beyond all doubt that any celebrant acting on behalf of or appointed by a church can refuse to marry any couple.

The churches who were concerned and who have examined the revised Bill appear to now accept that there is no risk that they will be required to do anything differently. Unfortunately some have now shifted their ground and are now professing concern for independent celebrants who are not acting on the authority of the church. The fact that some churches (and, of course, Bob McCoskrie and Colin Craig) have shifted ground in this way indicates that their actual position is a homophobic one, and that the ‘arguments’ being used are just window dressing to disguise that. For the sake of completeness though:

  • The body representing independent celebrants reported an overwhelming majority of its members support the Bill;
  • The committee received perhaps two submissions from independent celebrants who said they did not wish to solemnise marriages for same-sex couples, in both cases because of personal religious faith;
  • The Human Rights Commission has made it clear that it would not uphold a discrimination complaint against such celebrants;
  • If the HRC decision were appealed to a higher Court, most lawyers say the appeal would clearly fail, particularly if the refusal was because of religious or ethical reasons;
  • It’s hard to imagine a celebrant refusing to marry a same-sex couple because of sheer prejudice (“I hate gays”) without an ethical or religious basis, but I concede that if such a case ever arose it would be interesting to see what the Supreme Court made of the legal balance between the explicit statement not obliging celebrants in the Marriage Act against the more general requirement not to discriminate in the provision of goods and services in the Human Rights Act, and the Bill of Rights Act.
  • Why on earth would a couple go this rigmarole rather than just finding one of the vast majority of celebrants who wants to marry them?

Let’s also not forget that the position of independent celebrants is very clearly not about the relationship of church and state, or religious freedom. Independent celebrants act as agents of the state, with no qualification.

2. Churches will not be forced to say anything different

As submissions started to come in, we started to see an argument that we hadn’t seen before. Section 56 of the Marriage Act made it an offence to deny the validity of someone’s marriage. This provision, which so far as we can tell has never been used, finds its origin in the belief of the Catholic Church back in the 1950s that only marriages carried out in the Catholic Church were valid. Again, some churches and their adherents had been whipped up into a fear that this provision would be used once Louisa’s bill was passed to persecute and imprison those whose religious belief is that marriage should only be between a woman and a man. While this seemed far-fetched, there was certainly no intent for this to occur, so the select committee has simply recommended the repeal of this section, which seems to serve no useful purpose whatsoever.

3. No change is being made to the law around use of church buildings

Some churches and others could really do with a refresher on the human rights law that New Zealand has had since the 1970s, including the updated prohibited grounds for discrimination that were added 20 years ago. If a church makes its church hall available to the public for hire, if someone sells professional photography services, or if someone sells flowers for a living it has been against the law for them to decline to provide their goods and services on the basis of the sexual orientation of their customer for the past 20 years, and on the basis of the customer’s gender for almost 40 years. Louisa’s bill does not change this in any way. That doesn’t affect churches’ religious space, of course, and again who would want a wedding venue where they weren’t welcome, or a photographer or florist who was unsupportive? Once again these are not real arguments, but are red herrings designed to divert the eye away from the real source of opposition – prejudice.

The select committee has ensured that the State does not encroach on the religious belief or practice of churches. They will not be required to do or say anything different. But, in allowing those churches, denominations and congregations that DO support marriage equality to be able to exercise their beliefs too, this Bill will in fact extend religious freedom. It seems a shame that some in our churches see that as a bad thing.


About Kevin Hague 163 Articles

Green Party Member of Parliament

8 Comments Posted

  1. Great blog but it also troubles me a little bit. I’m not religous and I’m 100% in favour of equal rights for same sex couples.

    I used to think of churches as private organisations that could make their own rules based on their own beliefs and for that reason I agreed with the way the bill was written.

    However, I’ve since changed my mind. Why should they be excluded? We don’t allow them to refuse to marry Chinese people? Or handicapped people or people with red hair – why allow them to discriminate in this way?

    I hate to say it but perhaps it’s a reflection of the that the debate about the ‘morality’ of homosexuality has not yet been won to a sufficient standard for us to say to Churches: “your on board or you’re at the human rights tribunal”?

    Incidently, I was not the one submitter on this point to the Select Committee.

  2. Shunda, stop confusing morality with equal human rights they are two different things.

    As for tradition, they constantly evolve – pillage and slavery incorporated now within international capitalism, and government over the people renamed in Orwellian language government of the people by the people and for the people (makes a Commie party boss blush that). Marriage once included polygamy (still does for Moslems), concubines and polyandry – whereas we don’t recognise multiple cohabitation or partnerships as relationships for legal purposes.

  3. Shunda – it’s probably worth noting though that marriage is not exclusively a religious institution. It’s an anthropological one.

    So while a marriage of a homosexual couple may contravene the idea of marriage through a religious frame of reference, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it contravenes an anthropological view (accepting that a principal concept of cultural anthropology is that human societies are context dependent and subject to relativism, therefore constantly evolving their view of morality).

  4. Why on earth would a couple go this rigmarole rather than just finding one of the vast majority of celebrants who wants to marry them?

    It happened in California.

    The reason they would do it is because they have a different agenda, I am surprised you haven’t yet spotted the drooling ideologues waiting in the shadows to get down to the real business of cultural revolution once the law is passed.
    A lot of people have a passionate hatred of the institution of marriage and of Christianity in general, this law is a Godsend to them to remove all sorts of references to a relationship type they find abhorrent.

    Legislating morality is what this law is about, and the balance of society has shifted so that the church no longer has a significant voice in determining right and wrong.
    However, to suggest that the passing of this redefining marriage law is more legitimate than a church influencing official state ‘morality’ is just plain hypocritical.
    When this law passes it will have been done so due to the imposing of the morality of one sector of society on the rest, marriage is a tradition for goodness sake, no one has the ‘human right’ to a tradition.
    By definition, this redefining marriage law is ‘legislating morality’, and we shouldn’t continue to pretend any different.

  5. What an interesting subject for discussion. As a member of St Christophers Anglican Church in Blenheim, this is one of the sujects being discussed at present within our congregation.
    It is interesting to note, that while the issue has been dealt with at a state and secular level, no active member of a Christian based church has put forward their point of veiw.
    As a practising Christian, and using the Bible as my reference, I must by definition oppose the concept of same sex marriage being celebrated within Bible based, Christian denominations.
    As a follower of our Saviour, Jesus Christ, I must by definition accept the teachings of the Christian Bible, that by definition rejects the concept of same sex unions in any form or manner.
    I’m sure that there will be a number of those who have contributed to this blog who will define me as a, “homophobe”. By definition a practising Christian is called to hate the sin, but love the sinner.
    I understand that this debate has given rise to much concern and condemnation between those who activly promote gay rights, and those who oppose such veiws.
    I would therefore propose that we as a body promoting moral and legal changes, respect the fact that we will not agree with one another’s considerations, and respect each others points of veiw.
    Thankyou Mr Hague for your most interesting blog.
    John Walding

  6. It’s not just about religion, it’s about also law and about deception. There’s a political meme called cognitive infiltration which involves the promotion of political agendas by representing those ideas as the norm in popular media. One of the ways that cognitive infiltration is implemented is by introducing alternative meanings for words. In this case it is about promoting the idea that marriage means the civil union of two human beings, rather than the historical meaning of a lawful union of a man and a woman as husband and wife.

    As well as the obvious introduction of same-sex “marriages” , there is the distinction in meaning concerning human beings. In law a human being may be of lower legal status than a man, and this reduction of status may be of such an extent that a human being is described as a monster. The legal consequence of this loss of status concerns inheritance. Blackstone writing that monsters and children born out of lawful wedlock are incapable of inheriting real property (land).

    A monster hath no inheritable blood, and cannot be heir to any land. —Ballentine’s Law Dictionary (1930).

  7. “great effort has been expended to keep the church out of law-making and the State out of religious matters.”

    Lets see. The Westminster political system is based on the Christian religion, NZ’s head of state is the “Supreme Governor” of the Anglican Church, and your political representatives swear an oath of allegiance to her, an oath being an act of religion.

    Coronation Oath 1953

    Archbishop. Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you …
    Queen. All this I promise to do.

    If a man also lie with mankind, as he lieth with a woman, both of them have committed an abomination: they shall surely be put to death; their blood [shall be] upon them.
    Leviticus 20:13

    Also this from

    1. On February 25, 2013, a lawfully constituted Common Law Court of Justice found Elizabeth Windsor, Queen of England and Head of State of Canada and its churches, guilty as charged of Crimes against Humanity in Canada and of engaging in a Criminal Conspiracy to conceal Genocide. The same verdict found Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper guilty of the same offenses.

    2. This verdict was based on irrefutable evidence, including eyewitness accounts of Elizabeth Windsor’s personal involvement in the forcible abduction and disappearance of ten children from the Kamloops Indian Residential School on October 10, 1964, while on a state visit to Canada. Ms. Windsor has never denied or refuted this charge or evidence, nor did she respond to a Public Summons issued by the Court.

  8. Thank you, that was educational. While I’m no fan of the institution of marriage, I think this is one more step along the road to exposing and removing these ridiculous prejudices dating back to the dark ages some people have.

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