Monday, December 5, 2011

Religious Recognition of Same-Sex Civil Partnerships in Britain: Controversy Continues

It's a little difficult to get a fix on what's happening today in Britain with civil partnerships for same-sex couples.  My understanding (and this is from a distance and based on news reports--and I'll welcome additions and corrections from better informed readers) is that today is the day religious bodies that want to solemnize same-sex partnerships in Britain can begin to do so if they so desire.  No faith community that opposes such a step is being forced to take it.  The new option simply permits groups that wish to recognize same-sex partnerships in an official religious context to do so.

But as Terry Weldon is noting this morning, there's now a last-minute attempt of a group of Tories opposed to the new initiative to derail it on the day it was supposed to take effect.  Baroness O'Cathain, a long-time opponent of same-sex civil partnerships, has secured a debate in the House of Lords with the intent of torpedoing the new legislation, and she's supported by a group of reactionary MPs.

Who maintain that they have lots of gay friends, don't you know, and this isn't about discrimination.  It's about protecting the rights of some against the intrusion of the rights of others.  It's about protecting the right of churches like the Church of England and the Catholic church, both of which strongly oppose same-sex marriage, to try to restrain religious bodies that want to solemnize same-sex civil partnerships from doing so.

It's, in other words, about the argument that Catholic church officials have been trying to push all year long, that the religious freedom of "Christians" should trump the rights and freedoms of all groups that endorse same-sex unions--including other religious bodies like the Quakers, which regard the refusal of the state (and of faith communities) to recognize same-sex marriage as discriminatory.  But the real bottom line is fear of lawsuits and financial implications, if the new measures are permitted to be enacted: as Tory MP Edward Leigh, a Catholic, who is spearheading the opposition to the new legislation, is telling the media, if the legislation goes into effect, he fears that it will provide a basis for gay couples to sue religious institutions for discrimination, and the end result will be shutting down programs such as adoption programs if they don't adhere to non-discrimination laws.

Did I say that the new measures in no way obligate any faith community to celebrate or recognize same-sex civil unions?  And that there is abundant protection for the religious freedom of religious communities that do not wish to celebrate or recognize these unions?

And that some of these religious bodies and their supporters are seeking to argue that their "religious freedom" and their faith-based "rights" should provide them the freedom and right to forbid other religious bodies that support same-sex couples from celebrating same-sex civil partnerships?

If you're confused by this debate and its twisting of plain truth and sound logic to mean the opposite of what's true and logical (or moral and good), then join the club.  With these arguments, we enter a never-never land in which rights and freedom become their opposite: they become my right and my freedom to deny rights and freedom to you.  Because I want to oppose any measure that provides further rights and freedoms to anyone who is gay, while bridling at charges that I'm promoting bigotry and fragmenting the common good.

And my bottom line is that I am more concerned about guarding the assets and legal rights of religious bodies than I am about seeing those religious bodies do the unambiguously right thing in an historic struggle for human rights.

As Michael Bayly notes at his Wild Reed site, the whole debate has Catholic leaders in the British Isles caught in the same quandary that faces their counterparts in the United States: the problem with which they're dealing is how to espouse raw discrimination without being tarred with the brush of bigotry.  And so the Catholic archbishop of Westminster, Archbishop Nichols, has made a positive statement about same-sex partnerships and their value for society, but he's also maintaining that he has made this statement to draw a sharp line between these partnerships (as, implicitly, second-rate quasi-marital unions) and real marriage.

Through it all, the Quakers continue to hew to the plain and straight moral line, just as they did in the period of slavery when the mainline churches disgraced themselves by waffling about questions of human rights that, to the Quaker conscience, were abundantly clear.  The British Quakers have been on record for two years now supporting the rights of same-sex couples to celebrate their partnerships on religious premises because British law affords that right to opposite-sex couples while denying it to same-sex couples--and this constitutes indefensible discrimination, in view of the Quakers.

Who will be proven right by history, and will be proven to have held to the moral course every bit as much as they did during the slave period, while most other Christian churches eventually had to admit that they took the wrong path altogether, when they supported discrimination and the denial of human rights to a minority community.

The graphic: human is human.  Fully human is fully human.  All human beings deserve the full range of human rights.  Period, full stop.

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