Saturday, July 23, 2011

Equality for all couples won't destroy society

The extension of marriage to same-sex couples needn't come at the expense of a stable society or religious human rights.

In its fashionably early 1996 article on opening marriage to same-sex couples The Economist magazine correctly argued ''marriage remains an economic bulwark [because] single people (especially women) are economically vulnerable, and much more likely to fall into the arms of the welfare state ... [and] call sooner upon public support when they need care''.

For these reasons and many more the legal and societal confirmation of consensual, stable relationships remains an entirely desirable public policy objective.

However, the value governments have placed on matrimony has been devalued during the past 30 years.

The latest Australian Bureau of Statistics data identified the number of marriages registered each year dropped by one-quarter between the early 1980s and mid-2000s.  Since that decline the rate has stumbled at about 5.5 registered per 1000 people annually.

Marriage is under threat.  But it isn't from those locked out.

Turning the tide requires government and society making marriage a preferable norm rather than unmarried alternatives.

The significant decline of marriage shouldn't come as a surprise.  The creation of legally comparable de facto relationship recognition undermined marriage's cultural role as the determiner of an established relationship.

But no matter how much reform advocates argue otherwise, broadening the definition of marriage to two people is a radical departure from the mainstream tradition.

From a conservative perspective significant societal change should be treated warily, especially when it is led by government.  But that doesn't justify holding back societal change and adapting when it occurs organically.

The Australian experience is that societal attitudes have changed organically in support of same-sex couples.  And this is likely to continue.

It might have taken until the age of 60 for former High Court justice Michael Kirby to be open about his relationship, but the same isn't applying for those generationally younger.

As a consequence the deprivation of legal formalisation and equality is compounding beyond couples directly affected and changing their family and friends' attitudes as well.

Conservative philosopher Edmund Burke argued that a ''state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation''.

Similarly, British conservative Michael Oakeshott argued that conservatism was about the manner of ''accommodating ourselves to changes''.

In light of a clear societal shift, the challenge for preserving the important status of marriage is to ensure the tradition survives the risks of calls for reform and the consequences of not doing so.

Fortunately, other countries have already undergone the experiment.

According to Gay Marriage for Better or Worse:  What We've Learned from the Evidence, by William N. Eskridge Jr and Darren Spedale, the Danish experience found reforming marriage coincided with a reversal in declines of heterosexual marriage rates, lower divorce rates and fewer children born outside of wedlock.

Similar trends have also been identified in Sweden, with heterosexual marriage rates increasing by 30 per cent.  The correlation doesn't prove causation, but it is clear the reforms haven't undermined heterosexual marriages.

With some US states also changing their laws, culturally comparable evidence is also emerging for Australia.  Former speechwriter for George W. Bush and anti-same-sex marriage reform advocate, David Frum, recently acknowledged ''the case against same-sex marriage has been tested against reality [and] the case has not passed its test''.

The remaining arguments against change also lack consistency.  A primary argument against allowing same-sex couples to marry is that it's an institution for raising children and should be preserved for those who procreate.

Therefore Bob and Jill who've been married for years and chose international holidays over school fees shouldn't have been able to get married, even more so if they are past a procreative age.

Instead reform increasingly appears inevitable, with polls finding three-quarters of Australians across all age groups believe marriage will eventually be extended to same-sex couples.  The same level of support for reform exists among younger Australians.

Therefore the risk to preserving marriage is ensuring an elite-driven, but increasingly broad-based, civil rights proposal isn't advanced while impinging on religious human rights.

At its most basic level, much of the marriage reform debate is an elaborate trademark dispute over the divergence between government and private religious certification terms for conferring a contract between two people as well as the state, their God, or all four.

Religious faiths have a legitimate ownership claim over marriage for historical and cultural reasons.  Dismissing that ownership disrespects their contribution in maintaining the institution.  But is it not just a religious institution.  It is also a public one.  And the best way to resolve this impasse is to disentangle ownership, ensuring that civil relationship recognition and religious marriage celebration aren't one and the same.

There are two options.

The first is to follow France and privatise marriage, where government offers civil unions for all couples, and religious faiths set the conditions in their tradition for celebrating marriage.

The second is to adapt the spirit of ''covenant'' marriages that exist in some US states.

These marriages have stricter rules for entry and divorce, based on religious values, and effectively compete against a more secular marriage also offered by government.

But rather than establishing a singular covenant alternative the commonwealth could establish a competitive marriage market where private religious faiths register their own marital contract based on private rules and traditions set by the appropriate hierarchy of the faith.

Government could then offer a civil marriage alternative between two people reflecting societal standards.

An example of a private religious marital contract could include that it only be accessed by heterosexual couples who attend religious services regularly, have undergone preparatory relationship counselling and can only be conferred by that faith's celebrant.  Couples could then choose the marriage model appropriate for them.

Under either scenario all couples would be treated equally for public purposes, but not for private religious ones.

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