Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!


Bigotry and marriage
September 13, 2012, 9:42 am
Filed under: Opinion

The Deputy Prime Minister apparently believes that those who disagree with him on points of sexual morality are “bigots”. He has retracted the word, but it is surely fair to suspect that what one puts in a first draft, or blurts out unthinkingly, represents one’s real thoughts, even if on reflection it is judged wiser not to express them so bluntly.

A bigot is someone who holds an opinion, not out of reasoned conviction, but on the grounds of irrational prejudice. To call someone a bigot is not (one would hope) simply an insult, but is an assertion that one holds their views to be not just false, but indefensible. That is a large claim!

Mr Clegg undoubtedly believes in the rights of conscience, and indeed in the duty at times of doing what one believes right even in the face of hostility and legal penalties. He surely applauds those Germans who resisted Hitler, who refused to obey immoral orders, even though according to the law of the time they had no such right. Governments can enact laws which are unjust and even immoral, which is why we uphold the notion of “human rights” as something independent of legal procedures.

Mr Clegg does not, I think, believe in God; but he knows that very many people do, and that this is often a determining factor in the way they make moral judgements. He may think this irrational- but that, of course, is only his opinion. On his relativist view, it would seem, there can only be opinions. But he must still recognise the right, and even the duty, of others to act according to their consciences.

It should be clear to him that the term “marriage” means different things to different people. It should also be clear to him that there are great differences as to what people think moral or immoral in relation to sexual behaviour. If we are to take seriously the idea of a “secular state”, it cannot be the role of Government to adjudicate on such matters.

The Prime Minister and others have made some play with a distinction between “religious marriage” and “civil marriage”. As the law stands, this is a distinction without a difference. Whether the ceremony takes place in a church or not, the legal effects are exactly the same: the couple are “married”. This is not the same as the situation in other countries, where the religious ceremony has, per se, no civil effect. Couples have to have two ceremonies, civil and religious. The church is not obliged to recognise the civil ceremony as “Christian marriage”, nor does the State give any legal weight to the religious ceremony.

Even in this country, not all ministers of religion are authorised to register marriages: the civil registrar must attend and register the marriage if it is to be civilly valid. Catholics, Muslims and Jews all have religious requirements that in various respects go beyond civil legislation, or even do not recognise the force of civil legislation- in regards to divorce, for instance.

English law now recognises the existence of “civil partnerships”, which enjoy nearly all the legal effects of marriage. Rather than tamper with the term “marriage”, it would be better to allow “civil partnership” to entirely replace the concept of “civil marriage”. Religious bodies could have their own rules, binding on their own members and subject only to religious sanctions. This could even extend to polygamy for Muslims, provided it was clear that this had no civil effect. Or, of course, civil partnerships could be for more than two, since monogamy itself is only a religious dogma, possibly as irrational to Mr Clegg as is the insistence on heterosexual marriage.

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