The New Zealand Marriage (Definition of marriage) Amendment Bill: A private comment on a public submission

The New Zealand Marriage (Definition of marriage) Amendment Bill: A private comment on a public submission October 29, 2012

On the 29th August 2012 the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill passed its first reading in the New Zealand Parliament by 80 to 40 (with one abstention).  From here the Bill went to a Select Committee for further consideration.  Public submissions closed on the 26th October.  I had been wondering if  the church would respond, and there it was, right at the 12th hour, a letter from a NZ Area Authority stating my…, sorry their…, sorry our position. 

While the church is politically neutral    it reserves the right enter into the public domain on moral debates.  And so it should.   But this does put myself and other Mormons who have taken a similar stance in a bit of a bind.  The inevitable questions follow:  Out of loyalty to my church, am I required, as an indication of my faith, to now align myself with the views expressed in this submission? Or should exercise my right as a citizen in a democratic and pluralist nation-state to form my own opinion?  Or is there a middle way?

In any event, this submission deserves close and careful analysis – after all,  its supposed to represent the position of my faith community and me.  The submission begins:

The protection of marriage as the union of one man and one woman is a matter of the common good and serves the wellbeing of the couple, of children, of civil society and humankind. We join with others to affirm that marriage in its true definition must be protected for its own sake and for society’s good.

Clearly, at the heart of this submission is a concern for protection.   But this is where I’m a bit stumped.  I’m genuinely unsure as to what protection the maintenance of opposite sex marriage as a social practice will afford me?  Yet the use of the word ‘protection’ indicates an imminent threat,  or the presence of some form of cultural/political terror that I simply don’t feel.  I’m personally not bothered in the least by gay marriage and simply can’t see how a same gender marriage will trouble my heterosexual marriage or even our traditional nuclear family.  At the same time,  I utterly agree, that any changes (or in New Zealand’s case – any clarification) of our marriage laws needs to be done with care and thoughtfulness.  But borrowing viral memes from conservative Christian groups who have tried to create a moral panic is surely not the most helpful of strategies.   Besides I can think of a dozen issues confronting humanity and indeed New Zealand that could genuinely do with the word ‘protection’ before I’d ever give it to this one – none of which I’ve seen the church respond to  publicly. 

We also assert the existing rights of religious groups to solemnize marriage exclusively between one man and one woman according to religious tradition and individual conscience.

I absolutely agree. Religious groups should have the right to solemnize marriage in accordance with their own traditions and faith.  This right needs to be utterly and absolutely preserved in law.  Fortunately, in New Zealand’s Human Right’s law we actually have a right to ‘freedom of religion and belief’.  We have a right to hold a belief, to change that belief, to express one’s religion and belief, and even the right not to hold a belief.  Any law passed with respect to marriage needs to ensure that in the religious domain, those beliefs are preserved.  No religion ought to be coerced into accepting wholly the state’s widening parameters of legal marriage where it is not part of their belief.

As a side note, it’s a strange irony that during the polygamous era of Mormon history, the shoe was categorically on the other foot.  The church  made demands that the state widen the parameters of marriage to accommodate their innovative marital arrangements.  Imagine the state of the United States  today if the government of the day had made that concession to the LDS church.    I’m personally very pleased with monogamy and take my hat off to the US government  for not capitulating to the Mormons in this instance (creepy images of Colorado City as a social norm spring to mind).

The point is that ever since the state got involved in the marriage business there have been tensions between government and religious groups over the parameters and boundaries of marriage.  This is why it is helpful to see that the energy of any faith tradition needs to be directed at the preservation of their right to solemnize marriage according to their own dictates and conscience rather than solely contending with the state over the definition of marriage.

 The meaning and value of marriage precedes and transcends any particular society, government or religious community. It is a universal good and the foundational institution of all societies. It is bound up with the nature of the human person as male and female and with the essential task of bearing and nurturing children.

I have to take issue with this.  It’s simply untrue.  Marriage as a social arrangement does not precede society.  This is an oxymoron.

Of course marriages have taken place throughout time for a variety of  reasons, depending on the cultural context.  Rarely for love, early marriages across cultures took place largely as familial arrangements, or strategic and economic alliances. The point of course is that these were done independent of the state.  In the Anglo-Saxon tradition the church’s central role in the marriage only occurred between the Decretum Gratiani (1140) and the Clandestine Marriage Act of 1753 which then placed marriage under state control.

We also recognize the serious consequences of altering this time-honoured definition. 

New Zealand really didn’t have a clear definition of marriage –hence the reason for the bill.  The Marriage Act 1955 makes no reference to marriage as being between a man and a woman.  This bill is directed at tidying this up and allowing for: “a union of 2 people regardless of their sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity” over and above precedence set in court.

One of these consequences – interference with the religious freedom of those who continue to affirm the true definition of “marriage” – warrants special attention within our faith communities and throughout society as a whole.

Theoretically, there is no ‘true’ definition of marriage, at least not in the legal sense or even in the historical sense.  Every faith tradition has their own definition of marriage, and largely, each of these definitions and understandings could be protected as a fundamental right under our human rights legislation.  But there is a marked distinction between the rights of faith communities,  and society as a whole.  If we were a homogenous state with a single culture and only one set of claims on our cultural rights, we could create a fusion between state/public governance and private religion and there wouldn’t be an issue.  But the reality is that we live in a pluralistic society with competing claims on a whole raft of cultural and social rights.  The government’s job is to consider broad legal claims and balance them against their responsibility to preserve the identity and belief rights of smaller cultural and religious groups.

We believe that changing the definition of marriage would have far-reaching negative implications for the nation, both legal and social.

With all respect, if one is going to make such a forecast one needs to back this up with some specifics.   I am genuinely interested for someone to please explain to me the details and provide some sound arguments so that I can anticipate these negative implications.

Therefore, we encourage all people of goodwill to protect marriage as the union between one man and one woman, and to consider carefully the far-ranging impact for religious freedom if marriage is redefined. We especially urge those entrusted with the public good to support laws that uphold the time-honored definition of marriage.

Here is where we get to the crux of my argument.  Wouldn’t it be better if our fight as a church were for the separation of a states right to define and conduct civil marriage, from a faith community’s right to define and conduct marriage?  Why aren’t we advocating to have a two tiered public/private marriage arrangement?  On the one hand the state should have the right to define the parameters of marriage in accordance with their need to balance all competing  claims on legal rights;  and on the other hand the state would allow faith communities the right to decide how, and for whom they will solemnize in their unique marriage ceremonies.  In short, everyone would need a  license and a civil ceremony to be legally partnered, and then whoever would like to, could choose a faith tradition that they feel committed to  who would in turn willingly solemnize their marriage as a church sacrament.

If the state makes the distinction between the  public secular nature of government, and the private religious nature of religion, then why not take marriage away from government and have them conduct civil partnerships like they do in Germany.  Marriage would go back to the church and stay anchored in faith communities who would have the freedom to decide on the definition of marriage according to their own conscience – as affirmed in our human rights legislation.  Just as a faith communities hope that the state doesn’t impinge upon their religious rights, there are social groups who hope that the specialized interests of certain religious groups don’t impinge upon their claims for public rights.   And I for one think that is more than fair.

The same-sex marriage debate is complex and I’m sure that there are plenty of New Zealand Mormons out there thrilled that the church has given them an opinion.  But I’m aware that there are many other Mormons who have given this serious and thoughtful consideration over many months and even years.  In any institution’s formation of a position statement or public submission some consultation is required.  It is quite unfortunate that this particular submission, that purports to represent ‘me’, seems foremost to have consulted with the ‘Protect Marriage’ lobby.  I just think we could have sat above the mêlée with a thoughtful submission gathered from our members who I have found in large to be insightful and really worth talking to.

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