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Saturday, 17 March 2012

The right to define

Now that we are into what Lynne Featherstone, Minister for Equalities, has called the ‘consultation period’, the battle lines have been drawn in the debate around the legal status of same-sex partnerships.

All the indications however, are that –in some quarters- the terms of debate will be framed within the context of the perceived superiority of the modern secular worldview. ‘Modern’ values are almost universally understood to be somehow more ‘evolved’ than those of previous generations. The modern secular liberal believes him or herself to be not only morally and intellectually superior to old-school religious conservatives, but morally and intellectually superior to every human being that has ever lived. The tiresome growth of hard-line atheists and their increasingly fundamentalist approach to the ‘God’ debate is but one example of this phenomenon.

Let me make this absolutely clear: I am all for same-sex partnerships. I think that people in same-sex partnerships should have the same rights as heterosexual couples and should be allowed legally to describe their union as a ‘marriage’. Nor do I have any issue with such partnerships raising children. Society is much better off when children are raised by responsible people who love, support and care for them; the gender or sexual orientation of those carers is not the primary consideration.

I do, however, understand why some folk might fret about the impending legal redefinition of the word 'marriage'. It was only in 2005 that the concept of 'civil partnership' was legalised in the UK. In historical terms, the ink is barely dry on that deal, yet the proposal now is for a further seismic shift in legal terminology.

This isn’t like ‘Marathon’ changing its name to ‘Snickers’. There are perfectly good economic and socio-cultural reasons why ‘marriage’ has –at least up until now- meant the union of man and woman. Accordingly, you can’t expect everyone to react with unbridled enthusiasm just because a relatively new societal trend has emerged. ‘Marriage’ has an extremely long and significant history. It is, at best, naïve to expect that a complete redefinition within the space of a couple of generations will not encounter a significant degree of hostility.

Lynne Featherstone claims that the church does not ‘own’ marriage and that the government is entitled to introduce same-sex marriages as a "change for the better". But do governments –which are always temporary- really have the moral authority to redefine a concept as old as marriage? Is this ‘moral authority’ founded upon nothing more substantial than the ability to guess which way the wind of opinion is currently blowing? Does it rest on a narcissistic belief that the modern secular liberal knows best? A Guardian editorial on this topic last year stated that the law needed to ‘catch up with where people are’. If more people decided that shoplifting was an appropriate lifestyle choice, would the law have to 'catch up' with that by legalising shoplifting?

I’m not religious and I have no desire to see any religious grouping dictate terms to society at large, but I do respect the fact that the Judeo-Christian value system has, by and large, shaped our laws, institutions and societal mores. I don’t support the arguments of folk like Cardinal Keith O’Brien, but I do understand the background from which it is possible for him to arrive at his position. And a position that has evolved over centuries won’t be changed by trend-hopping governments or by editorials in the Guardian.

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