Since the last newsletter Liberty Victoria has been busy writing submissions to a number of state and federal inquiries on issues such as politicians register of interests, privacy, anti-terror laws and marriage equality.
The last inquiry was established as a result of Senator Sarah Hanson-Young’s Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009, which seeks to remove discrimination against same-sex couples from the Marriage Act 1961.
Liberty Victoria endorsed the Bill, urging the Senate to pass it. Liberty addressed a number of issues in its submission including the often unquestioned belief that marriage is primarily a religious institution.
Liberty pointed out that marriage in Australian law is a civil partnership or civil union established by an Act of the Commonwealth Parliament, the Marriage Act 1961, and is governed by that Act and the Family Law Act 1975. Indeed most marriages in Australia are formalised by civil celebrants under the Family Law Act. That Act also permits some authorised officials of approved religious bodies to act as civil celebrants in addition to or simultaneously with conducting their own rituals, but it does not establish marriage as a religious institution. In many European countries religious bodies have no role at all in civil marriage: all marriages, to be lawful, are conducted by civil officials. Religious rituals, if any, come later.
Liberty pointed to the recent unanimous decision in Varnum v Brien, 763 N.W.2d 862 (Iowa 2009 USA), where the court stated that there are no valid reasons in a jurisdiction which respects the right to the equal protection of the laws and equality under law to deny access to the institution of marriage to same-sex couples.
This view is not restricted to the state of Iowa. A number of countries now recognise equal marriage: Canada, South Africa, Spain, Belgium, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, and in addition to Iowa, the US states of Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
It is often said in support of the discriminatory law adopted in 2004 that it ‘reflects the widely held view in the community that marriage is between a man and a woman’ or is an institute sanctioned by God. This assertion is spurious. It merely panders to prejudice. But as it is asserted frequently it needs to be challenged.
First, the claim that a monogamous marriage between a man and woman is recognised by God and thus is the only legitimate form is pure bunkum. Such a marriage is in fact not endorsed by the Bible. The norm in biblical marriage is polygamy and not a monogamous relationship between one man and one woman. Indeed, Solomon was said to have had 600 wives, a record by any standard.
Secondly, resorting to religion as a basis for prejudicial marriage practices belies the fact that the Christian religion does not mandate or support the form that is pushed by the Australian Christian Lobby and similar groups. Indeed, in examining marriage practice there is no indication that Christianity or religion of any persuasion has a positive impact on marriage.
Statistics in the United States on divorce rates demonstrate unequivocally that the red states (religious or bible-belt states) have a much higher divorce rate that the northern blue states. Indeed, as the New York Times pointed out in 2004, the state with the lowest divorce rate is Massachusetts, home to John Kerry, the Kennedys and same-sex marriage.
Exclusion from marriage sends a strong message to same-sex couples: you are unworthy! This message of exclusion harms people directly, reinforcing the prejudice that leads to heightened risk of depression and suicide.
And it harms them indirectly, by making it harder for friends and family to be supportive, to celebrate milestones in life that others take for granted, and by inhibiting their full citizenship in the life of the community.
Liberty Victoria urged the Senate committee to stop this cycle of abuse. To send the decent and right message: marriage is for every couple who have a mutual commitment to a shared life.
Anne O’Rourke is a vice-president of Liberty Victoria.