Monday, February 21, 2011

Austen Ivereigh on Change in Marriage Laws in UK: "Stand Up Against Equality"

As I wrote about Ronni Sanlo's recent report noting that Jesuit-owned Marquette university is characterized by a climate of fear and harassment when it comes to LGBT persons, I noted that some members of the campus community whom Sanlo interviewed are disturbed by the discrepancy between what Jesuit institutions proclaim about social justice, and what they actually practice in the case of those who are gay.  I wrote:

Institutions that discriminate against LGBT persons are not Catholic enough.  Jesuit institutions that profess to be all about social justice, while they ignore the needs of gay and lesbian persons or, even worse, engage in discrimination against these persons, betray the Jesuit tradition.

And because I agree with those within Jesuit institutions who call for these institutions to practice the justice they preach to others in their own behavior towards gay and lesbian persons, I'm shocked to read the concluding lines of Austen Ivereigh's latest posting at Jesuit-owned America magazine about the debate re: same-sex marriage in the United Kingdom.  Ivereigh writes, 

Pope Benedict's trip to the UK last September emboldened the bishops specifically to stand up against equality laws which had the effect of diminishing religious freedom.

Emboldened the bishops specifically to stand up against equality laws: that's not a phrase you read every day in a social justice-oriented Jesuit publication.  Bishops praised for their "boldness" in "standing up" against equality! 

Try to get your mind around that for a moment.  Think, for instance, of a Jesuit journal publishing an article in 1957 or 1964 praising those who "stood up against" laws assuring the legal equality of African Americans in the U.S.  And then being told that they were "bold" for doing so.

And that they were promoting freedom even as they fought to deny rights to a vulnerable and oppressed minority group.

As Tom Krattenmaker noted recently at Huffington Post, a critical mass of citizens of the U.S. have now moved so far in the direction of fairness, inclusion, tolerance, and justice for those who are gay and lesbians that Christians who continue to praise the "boldness" of those who "stand up against" equality are now in danger of appearing every bit as infamous--one day soon down the road--as Bull Connor and George Wallace now seem to us.

Churches standing boldly against equality for LGBT persons--and in the name of religious freedom, no less!--are beginning to look as mean, as ugly, as unjust as white Southern Christian segregationists who stood in the door of schools preventing children of color from attending those schools now appear to us.  

The posting of Ivereigh's to which I link above is the second in a series he has written characterizing the resistance of some Christians in the UK to attempts to alter the marriage laws as a praiseworthy crusade to defend religious freedom and to protect the sanctity of "traditional" marriage.  The first is here.  What's this all about?

The UK currently has a two-tiered system of marriages and civil unions.  Same-sex couples are not permitted to enter civil marriages.  And conversely, opposite-sex couples are not permitted to have a civil union--though the claim is that both forms of legalized union are equal to each other.  

Because the two-tiered system is on the face of it discriminatory and a class system that turns one set of legalized unions into a second-class union, some opposite-sex couples--including many people from faith communities fighting the discrimination in this system--have been testing the waters by seeking to enter into civil unions, and then publicizing the fact that they have been denied this form of civil marriage.  As I noted in August 2009, the Quakers in the UK are at the forefront in this battle against legalized discrimination, as they were in the 18th and 19th century at the forefront in the battle against slavery.

There is also another level of discrimination.  Those entering into civil unions may not use religious language in these civil ceremonies.  It is expressly forbidden, and expressly reserved to marriages.  What Ivereigh is responding to--and calling an attack on religious freedom--is a decision of the British government to permit gay couples entering into civil unions to solemnize those unions in churches and to use religious language in the ceremony--if the church in question chooses to solemnize the civil union.  The law protects the right of any or all churches to opt out of such ceremonies and to refuse to perform them (see also here and here).

By contrast, in European nations that permit both civil and religious unions or marriages, same-sex couples are permitted by law to choose the latter--again, provided that the church upon which they call to conduct the religious ceremony is willing to do so.

And so it is strange, indeed, to hear Austen Ivereigh characterize the proposed shift in British laws as an attack on religious freedom, when the only freedom being attacked here is the freedom of same-sex couples to solemnize their unions in churches and with religious language.  And when the proposed change in the current laws categorically protects the right of any church that does not wish to perform such a ceremony to refuse to do so.

It is difficult to see this defense of "religious freedom" as anything other than a defense of gross discrimination against a targeted minority.  And it is rather sickening to hear this argument on behalf of what is said to be freedom but is in fact discrimination coming from the mouths of people who claim to be all about defending human rights.

As I've been saying for some time now, the message the Catholic church is now transmitting to the world--loudly and clearly, no matter what it says about human rights and justice for all--is that it is a club in which there is a strong preferential option for heterosexual males.  No matter what type of heterosexual males and what their own well-publicized sexual histories might be and what their own behavior has been when it comes exemplifying the values of traditional marriage. 

What does a Jesuit journal think it is doing promoting this kind of rotten heterosexist male entitlement in the church, with its nasty homophobic subtext, I wonder, while claiming it stands for justice?

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