Gay marriage – why not just have a referendum?

By forcing through gay marriage legislation so hurriedly, the Government is alienating conservatives

By forcing through same-sex marriage legislation so hurriedly, the Government is alienating conservatives

Equality Minister Lynne Featherstone has opened the consultation on gay marriage, with the Government pointing out that, though they welcome the public’s views, it is a matter of “how, not whether” the change is introduced.

Some people have already suggested that gay marriage is becoming Cameron’s fox-hunting bill; there is a parallel in that a huge amount of energy is being expended on something actually quite unimportant. (Parliament spent ten times as long debating fox-hunting as it did the Iraq War; the 2003 invasion led to the extinction of that country’s ancient Christian community. Still, musn’t hurt foxy-woxy, eh?)

It could be worse for Cameron. Like many Conservative voters I’m vaguely, not strongly, against the change in the law (maybe 60/40). My main objection is that there is no precedent; that marriage has always been, historically, between people of the opposite sex, and linked to procreation. Of course people unable to procreate get married, such as the elderly and the infertile, although pretty much all cultures have allowed some sort of annulment in certain cases where the marriage is childless.

This system has great benefits, both for children, who are more likely to grow up with their biological father, and for men themselves, who are domesticated and pressured into behaving in a more enlightened way (the “marriage premium”). The fact that, after half a century of government interference, up to a quarter of children now grow up without a father makes it seem a strange time to meddle with the institution. The best case against making this change (which is, in effect, a change in wording) that I’ve read was made by Richard Waghorne, here.

On the other hand I accept that just because this has always been the case, there’s no reason why things shouldn’t change. Likewise, given enough time, perhaps the major Churches will change their views about homosexuality, which are not necessarily important to the religion.

What might stop that happening, and what will leave Conservatives voters with a bitter taste in their mouths, is the way that this debate has unleashed a torrent of abuse against those who oppose the change, whether religious or not; I know that it’s in the nature of most newspaper articles to preach to the converted, but people who label opponents as “homophobes” or “bigots” are not going to change many minds. (As for Featherstone’s comments about the Churches being in the “Dark Ages”, what a strange, historically illiterate thing to say.)

This isn’t the Prime Minister’s fault, but it’s human nature that when people feel that they and their values are under attack, they become defensive. Which is a shame, because lots of gay men understand and respect Catholic and Anglican opposition, and would rather gently persuade them, but they are drowned out by the culture warriors.

This feeling will only get worse if the law results in churches being sued for discrimination if they refuse to marry same-sex couples. Featherstone has said that this change will “not force anyone on religious premises to marry same-sex couples.” She added that she wanted to make that “crystal clear.”

I find that unlikely; I can’t see how the Churches can justify such a discriminatory policy, legally, if all marriages are equal. What’s the bet that, the day after gay marriage is legalised, Peter Tatchell will make eradicating this discrimination the next goal?

Trying to change people’s hearts by law is always problematic. If you recognise same-sex relationships as equal, then you will already see them as husbands and wives, whether or not the law says so; if you don’t, this law will not change your mind about homosexuality, only about the law, and the law-making process. If the government really wanted to consult the people, why go through this sham of a consultation – why not just have a referendum?

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