Not All Equality is Equal

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One of the central mantras of the campaign to redefine marriage is that it’s all about “equality”. We hear the language of “equal marriage”, “marriage equality” and even the claim that homosexuals are, somehow, “second-class citizens”.

What are we to make of this claim? I think the key is to establish quite what proponents have in mind when they speak of “equality”. To get clarity on this question we should turn to the most consistent of those pushing hard for a “yes” vote in the upcoming postal survey (notwithstanding their refusal to committing to honour the result). Here in Australia perhaps one of the proponents with most integrity in this regard is the MP Tanya Plibersek, member for Sydney. Plibersek’s constituency has, by her own claim, probably the highest proportion of homosexual couples in the country and she has been a fairly consistent advocate for them throughout her time in parliament.

Hon Tanya Plibersek MP

Here are Plibersek’s words from a statement given in parliament in February 2011 when she was Minister for Human Services and Minister for Social Inclusion (although she is giving a constituency statement, not a government statement):

…my constituents gratefully acknowledge the historic reforms made by the Labor Party which delivered complete equality for same-sex de facto couples in 2008 in every piece of Commonwealth law, in areas as diverse as superannuation, social security, veterans affairs, Medicare, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and many others…

and again the previous year from a paid advertisement in her local paper (p.4 of the copy)…

…we have much to celebrate, with the federal government embarking on the biggest same sex law reform in our history. In our first year of government, we reviewed, and made amendments to over 80 pieces of legislation, to make same sex couples and their families equal.

The passing of these reforms to federal legislation was one of the proudest moments of my time in the Australian Parliament.

The reforms amended 85 Commonwealth laws to eliminate discrimination against same sex couples and their children in a wide range of areas, including social, security, taxation, Medicare, veteran’s affairs, workers’ compensation, educational assistance, superannuation, family law and child support.

In taxation, same sex couples, from the beginning of this financial year (1July 2009), will be able to take advantage of the same tax concessions available to other couples and families.

For the PBS and Medicare safety nets, same sex families can now register for each of these as a family and access the benefits they provide.

Changes to Migration Regulations mean that same-sex couples and their children will be counted as a family for visa purposes, in the same way that other families are considered.

I trust that what is being stated is obvious. Under Pliberseks’ leadership the government established genuine legal equality in every piece of Commonwealth law (her words).

Assoc Prof. Neil Foster argues the same point and we have further backing from the secular Find Law Australia. Not that we need them when the minister who was responsible for the reforms herself confirms it to us. Of course we also need to add that at the moment every adult in Australia is free to marry under the current law. What is being requested is not the right to marry (which is already granted along with many other rights) but a change to the definition of marriage.

We return to Plibersek’s speech

…89 per cent of respondents [to the constituency survey] believe that the government should legislate for further relationship recognition for same-sex couples. The clear preference from residents in the Sydney electorate who made a submission to me is to amend the Marriage Act so that same-sex couples can get married. Eighty per cent of survey participants supported same-sex marriage, 57 per cent supported a national civil union scheme open to both same-sex and opposite-sex de facto couples.

The point that needs to be made here is that the equality that is being asked for is what she defines as “recognition of the relationship”. This goes beyond any requirement for legal protections for same-sex couples and shifts the whole debate to something else – a state-endorsed validation of the relationship. The validation, please note, is not simply that the relationship exists (which could be more than adequately dealt with by a civil union) but that the relationship is, to all intents and purposes, the equivalent of a marriage between a man and a woman.

In other words, the current call for “marriage equality” is actually a push for the state to enshrine in law the notion that there is no essential difference between a homosexual and heterosexual relationship.

This is, I suggest, where the wheels start to come off the cart. Those of us engaged in debate and discussion over this topic will know that one of the key ways to quickly derail the “equal marriage” train is to ask a simple question of someone in the “yes” camp:

Can you outline any essential differences between homosexual and heterosexual relationships?

It’s a simple enough question, and the answers should be fairly obvious. But can you get a clear answer? Of course not. I am losing count of the number of conversations where I ask this simple question and my interlocutor all of a sudden loses the ability to discern basic biological functions. When you go on to point out that a heterosexual relationship (as opposed to a homosexual relationship) is a joining together of 2 individuals who are in a substantial way different to one another or that a heterosexual relationship, by nature, is orientated towards sexual reproduction in a way that homosexual relationships, by nature, are not – well if you’ve not been there you can only imagine the defensiveness, the howls of outrage and so on. I want to gently suggest that the outrage is directly proportional to the amount of chutzpah required to deny any essential difference between the two.

Now at this point let’s make an important additional observation; to acknowledge the difference is not to make any statements about value, moral or otherwise. To recognise difference is simply to be mature enough to recognise difference. But the reality is that there is value read into this question by the proponents of redefinition – hence the language of “second-class citizen” and so on. It’s a call for the state to step in and declare that there is no essential difference between two things that have essential differences because some people will be outraged if those differences continue to be acknowledged. We’ve shifted very quickly from the language of “diversity” to have legislated uniformity.

As a Christian it’s interesting to reflect upon this. Equality of value despite difference is something deeply embedded in our understanding of how to view the world. So the very first statements about humanity in the Bible express this:

Gen. 1:27  So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

Male and female. Both made in the image of God and yet distinct. Or how about Jesus himself?

Phil. 2:5-7    In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant,

So Jesus, despite having the same status as God the Father, doesn’t complain about being viewed in a different way. In fact, in the Christian worldview, it’s more than simply accepting difference; it’s the willingness to be viewed as lower. We’re asked to have the same mindset.

This is, I think, why Christians sometimes struggle to empathise with much of what lies behind the “yes” campaign. It is a struggle for vindication, for validation; one might even say for justification in the wider sense of the word. In one sense, we can understand the concept. There is great joy for the Christian in knowing their justification before God (Rom. 5:1-5) and a great confidence that comes from it. We don’t need anyone else to validate us, let alone require their validation to be in some way enforced. So while we may campaign for religious freedoms, if the day comes when they’re removed from us we’ll still carry on since our justification (in every sense of the word) flows from a greater authority than the State which has removed its approval or protection.

But the “yes” campaign does not have this confidence. If you like, the State is their “God who justifies” (Rom. 8:33) in the face of the charge that their relationships are not the same. They have no-one else to turn to in order to seek validation.

The Christian is no longer in such a battle. Our justification is long since established, but it also gives us a unique insight into the deep desire for justification that pushes the “yes” campaign along.

The Church is nothing like the State. In the Church we all come together, utterly different from one another but equally justified in the Lord Jesus Christ. It’s a wonderful justification that allows us to be honest about our differences. I am not the same as my wife, let alone one of my church wardens. I am not the same as the pastor of the neighbouring parish or the Christian who is an MP sitting in Parliament or a believer across the world in a developing country. I don’t need to be seen to be the same because my sense of worth isn’t measured in comparison to others but established in Jesus. My neighbour can put up a billboard declaring that I’m not really a Christian, let alone a fair dinkum Ozzie, and it wouldn’t trouble me because Jesus already knows.

Here’s the key difference. I don’t need someone else to acknowledge the truth about me – God has already declared everything that needs to be declared.

The State can never provide such assurance. It can legislate to declare a point of view about me but it can’t make my neighbour change his mind. But if my great desire is that my neighbour approves of me then the State will never accomplish what I so desperately want. They can make my neighbour come to my party but they can’t make them like it.

What they can do, however, is punish my neighbour for not liking it. And that’s where this will inevitably end. It’s an entirely different form of equality.

The Christian wants to spread the equality of justification through persuasion. We implore others to be reconciled to God (2Cor. 5:20). We seek to give a cogent defence and explanation of what we believe (1Peter 3:15). We long for people to know the peace that we have and invite them in but we reject the notion of a theocracy. If people become “equal” then it is because they have had a change of mind and willingly join in.

The “yes” campaign gives every indication of spreading an equality of justification by coercion. It increasingly cannot defend it’s position and shows little sign of relying on simple persuasion. Not satisfied with it’s own view of itself it wants to mandate others to join in. In other jurisdictions we have countless examples. This is what must always happen when the equality being fought for is not really defensible. The party that knows it cannot persuade others will employ alternate means.

Perhaps Christians in the past have employed these tactics from time to time, to our shame. Now the shoe is on the other foot and we should get used to it. In this fight for equality, the tide appears to be clearly moving in one direction. But our understanding of our own equality before God does not depend on State recognition and so we need not be anxious. No end of charges will be brought against us, with the State used as a vehicle to prosecute. So be it. It really is God who justifies. Who can condemn? (Rom. 8:33-34).

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This Post Has 6 Comments

  1. Phil Nicholson

    Thanks for your good insights and courage in being a voice in these public discussion. The other related mantra that I have seen being pushed in the last few days is “unity”. The vote is presented as a choice between unity and division. A “Yes” vote will unite Australians. And those who do not wish to be untied under the banner of SSM…?

  2. David

    As a straight male that strongly supports marriage equality, I find your ‘killer question’ strangely perplexing. I could list a thousand ways in which my wife and I are substantially different, none of which are related in any which way to our genitalia! And us getting married had nothing to do with children. If the ability to procreate was at all relevant in the debate, then older people and the infertile should also be denied marriage equality. But of course it’s not, so they’re not.

    I’m sure that question does derail the equal marriage train, as it makes no sense and is totally irrelevant.

    1. David Ould

      hi David. Thanks for commenting here.
      I’m not sure you’ve grasped the question being asked. It’s not what the difference between you and your wife is. It’s what the difference in general is between homosexual and heterosexual relationships.

      Perhaps you’re able to answer the question. In general, what is the difference between a homosexual and heterosexual relationship? When it comes down to it, what are the essential differences?

  3. Bruce Wearne

    David: There is at least one problem at least with the your trenchant analysis. It concerns the fact that YOU FAILING TO EMPHASISE the decisive contribution to our political malaise and confusion by the major political parties, ESPECIALLY THE LABOR PARTY. Like their major opponent they have stopped being a genuine political party. And of course if they want to hold such strange views that Government is capable of making two men or two women into a husband and wife relationship, they can do so if they dare – freedoms of speech, religion, association guarantee that – but as parties they should argue their case BEFORE their candidates gain election – they shouldn’t be giving themselves points as Tanya Plibersek does for continuing to withhold from their electors (i.e. their ELECTORS across the entire nation) their actual view of marriage, family, households and human relationships. Instead by persistent furtive duplicity over decades they have failed to spell out what they intend to legislate and then try to tell us how proud they are of their “justice credentials” after getting elected and legislating matters that may be tweaked as vitally important to those in their own electorate even though they haven’t insisted that their party has the courage to disclose these legislative reforms BEFORE being elected. Here we have before us the comments of a senior Labor Party Parliamentarian telling us after the legislation has been passed of how proud she is of her party’s legislative contribution when she was previously on the Government side ringing in all those changes to the sex discrimination act. And yet that legislation was NOT on the basis of a comprehensive legislative programme announced to the Australian electorate by her party… it was not disclosed in a vigorous way by her party “on the hustings” outlining the legislative agenda they intended to put forward if she and her fellow Labor Parliamentarians were elected, Their inability to form public debate on issues that they know will be contentious – carefully orchestrating events to stereotype any principled opponents with the “usual suspicion” for which they and their opposite number on the other “side” have become notorious after – indicates just how much we are involved in a process of perpetual undermining of our legislative system through the inner decline of political party integrity. “Both sides” neither now tell us why they supported the change to the Marriage Act in 2004 and they also doggedly refuse to tell us why they are walking away from what was a bipartisan legislative reform … the point of your article is quite appropriate – but now we must ask, what about the demands of public justice for those male-female married people who don’t want to be considered by Government to be married under the proposed legislative error that is based on an empirical mistake? What about justice for husbands and wives? Does their distinctive identity mean nothing?
    Keep up the good work.

  4. Bruce Wearne

    And one further point (6th November 2017): what the February 2011 statement of the then Minister for Human Services and for Social Inclusion implies is this: from now the Labor Party is committed to interpreting marriage qua institution as a civil right even if it hasn’t been listed as such on the UDHR. And so that is what the Labor Party has failed to tell us namely that its support for Same Sex marriage legislation is simply because they are committed to bringing the definition of marriage into line with their individualistic view of civil rights,

    But now, as with the judgement handed down in favour of the university in the Felix Ngole case in the UK, we must be wondering whether we are on the verge of endorsing the same kinds of socially restrictive policies. There is in that judgement a reduction of the task of upholding rights in ways that reduce the issues to the “feelings” of those who hear “objectionable speech”. This is allowed to trump the right of a person to speak and to exercise religious freedom. And so this bogus survey is on the cusp of countering the very purpose of civil rights law that is to protect the individual and the minority from the heavy handedness of majorities.

    We might want to ask: What about the denigration of marriage via Mardi Gras for decades? Has that not been hurtful to some?

    And as we look to a change to the Marriage Act here’s a religious freedom issue to consider: what will be demanded in a “church marriage ceremony” where the celebrant is required by law to read out the state’s formulae that a marriage has been lawfully contracted? Will the church celebrant be able to tell the congregation in that same ceremony that though this is said by Government to be what a lawful marriage the legislation has got it all wrong? Stand by.

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