Head to head: Same-sex marriage

Last updated 05:00 31/07/2012

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OPINION: Catholic priest Father Merv Duffy argues a change is wrong, dangerous, expensive and unnecessary while Presbyterian minister Margaret Mayman says it is equality that most New Zealanders, gay and straight, want.

Father Merv Duffy

I oppose the proposed re-definition of marriage in Labour MP Louisa Wall's bill before Parliament because it is wrong, dangerous, expensive and unnecessary.

It is wrong because marriage is a historical and cultural universal reflecting our nature.

Humans are a sexually differentiated species - males and females are different - and we pair-bond. A couple who are attracted to each other set up a household and raise a family. The family, involving the genetic parents of the children co-operating to raise them, is an enduring institution which has taken many forms.

Such families are the core of society. Well-functioning and stable families bring up their children well. There are many types of relationship, but human societies value in a special way the man-woman couple who publicly commit to sharing life and love in the hope of having and raising children. This is what we have always called "marriage" and it was originally the business of families rather than of the church or the state.

When civil societies gave legal recognition to marriage they were describing a pre-existing reality, they were not defining something new. Marriage was recognised as being about procreation - having children - and the present law does not recognise a marriage as valid unless it is consummated by ordinary sexual intercourse.

It is dangerous to redefine marriage because it is such a basic concept threaded through all our legal and social systems.

What are the consequences going to be of this change? Who can envisage them all? Law holds up ideals to society as well as setting limits; it has a teaching role. Widening the definition of marriage will blur this teaching.

Will groups within society who employ married couples be permitted to discriminate on the basis of wanting hetero-sexual couples? Will marriage, already under threat from no-public-commitment co-habitation become less attractive to young couples?

Another danger to redefining something is the precedent it establishes; if marriage can be redefined once, it can be redefined again. What of polygamy? Why is marriage restricted to couples? We could be stepping unwarily on to a slippery slope that could change our society out of all recognition.

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The Civil Union Act generated a huge bill for government departments as innumerable forms required adaptation to allow for the public recognition of those unions.

The same departments will incur another significant expense as every marriage document and database has the words "bride" and "bridegroom" removed and replaced by some bland gender-neutral term. The symbols and customs of marriage are an interlinked network of mutually supporting ideas. Changing the definition rips a hole in that web of symbols and weakens the whole structure.

It is unnecessary because the New Zealand Civil Union Act has allowed almost all the legal rights of marriage to same-sex couples.

New Zealand is already an extraordinarily tolerant society, especially younger New Zealanders. The perceived problem is not of the scale to justify such a fundamental change in our legal system.

Redefining marriage is social engineering of unprecedented proportions. Law is the servant of society and it should not be used to change the fabric of that society.

This is a classic clash between liberals and conservatives. Liberals believe they can make things better, conservatives want to hold on to what is good. Our recent unfortunate experiment in lowering the drinking age to promote good drinking habits is an example of how change does not always make things better.

At the very least, New Zealand could afford to wait and see what effect changing this law has in other countries. Will Spain and Scotland be the better for it?

In the interests of full disclosure - I am not married (though my parents were). I am a Catholic priest who lectures a course on the theology of marriage at Good Shepherd College in Auckland and I have been the celebrant for many weddings.

The Catholic Church has clear teachings on marriage, including that it be between one man and one woman, but marriage pre-dates the church and exists well beyond its scope. Despite the Christchurch Press quoting me as saying "the sanctity of marriage is threatened", I am not presenting religious arguments against this law change. It is not the sanctity under threat, it is the legal definition. This is of concern to all citizens.

Rev Margaret Mayman

Marriage equality (ending discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or identity) is no threat to families or to people of faith.

With Civil Unions, New Zealand acknowledged diverse families legally. Now is the time for full social equality. Marriage has been evolving as a civil and religious institution throughout human history.For many centuries, neither church nor state were involved in solemnizing marriages.While there have always been loving marriages, marriage has its origins in the more mundane realities of property, procreation and patriarchy.

All over the western world, the movement to transform marriage is underway. However, it is not gay and lesbian people who have been transforming marriage. It is heterosexuals. It seems to me that it is precisely because heterosexuals have changed marriage from an economic arrangement to a relationship of love and support, that gay and lesbian people are seeking to join it.

Over time, changes have occurred to recognize the humanity of people and their moral and civil rights within marriage.In the past, neither the state nor religion recognized divorce and remarriage, inter-racial marriage, or gender equality in marriage.Rather than threatening marriage, the changes of the modern era have strengthened it.

For religious people marriageremains a holy covenant. Marriage has the potential to create stable, committed relationships. It enables people to share economic resources. It nurtures the couple and any children they have. Good marriages benefit the community and for many people express values of long-term commitment, generativity, and faithfulness. In terms of these values, there is no difference between same sex and opposite sex marriage.

Progressive Christians see marriage equality as a spiritual and ethical imperative. The over-riding message of Christian faith is that we called to practise justice and compassion, and to welcome and those who are marginalised and oppressed.The biblical call to love our neighbours as ourselves provides the mandate for marriage equality.

But the Bible says very little about marriage, as we understand it today, and nothing at all about same sex marriage. The texts that are used to condemn homosexual acts were written by people who had no understanding that human sexual orientation is a continuum. They also thought that the earth wasflat and that demons caused illness. Marriage in the Old Testament included polygamy and sexual relationships with slaves. Rape victims were required to marry rapists. Marriage in the New Testament encouraged celibacy, forbade divorce, and required subordination of women.The biblical texts have nothing to say about people who experience same sex attraction and love and who wish to commit themselves publically to one another, and to receive the benefits and protections available to citizens in such relationships.

For conservative religious people who do not support same sex relationships, changes to civil marriage legislation represent no danger. New Zealand is a secular county and even religious New Zealanders differ widely in their understandings of sexuality and marriage. No single religious voice can speak for all traditions.

The current law allows for religious groups to hold their own beliefs about marriage and to have the right to discern who is eligible for marriage in their own tradition. This right will remain under the new law. No church will have to perform a same sex marriage, but those who decide to will be free to do so. The best way to protect religious freedom is to ensure separation of church and state when it comes to equality under the law.

Sadly this proposed legislation is generating more heat than light from people of faith. The same people who fiercely opposed civil unions are now hypocritically saying that civil unions protect families. The scaremongering about adoption is reprehensible. Thousands of kiwi children are growing up parented by gay and lesbian people. The law already allows gay and lesbian people to adopt as individuals, just not as a couple. Diverse families are the reality and mainstream research shows that children raised in gay and lesbian families do just as well as children raised by opposite sex parents. Love is what matters.

It is equality that the majority of New Zealanders, gay and straight, want for our nation. Legal protection, social and religious recognition are all important.Marriage equality is good for New Zealand couples, families, children and society.

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