As far as I’m concerned, this is a long overdue development. The claim that marriage is just for men and women has always rung hollow, not in the least because no religion or culture ‘owns’ the concept. Marriage wasn’t exported to the rest of the world by a particular group: rather, the idea has flourished with variety in almost every human culture. The Christian argument that gay marriage is invalid because God dislikes homosexuality is, ultimately, hypocritical: people are already married under the auspices of different, scripturally untenable traditions, religious or otherwise, but nobody is protesting those. Unless the dissenters start taking placards to Hindu ceremonies, they’ve already acknowledged that the state has a right to legalise marriage in a non-Christian context. Protesting homosexuality is, in this sense, mere semantics.
Whether the church must preside over gay weddings is a different issue – one, methinks, which is best left to a case-by-case basis. Or would be, if not for the uneasy truce between discrimination law and religious tradition. This, perhaps, is the legalistic nub of the problem: if the church were to be treated like any other organisation, then any refusal to ‘serve’ couples on the basis of sexual orientation would count as discrimination, with all the liabilities that entails. Going back a few decades, it’s the equivalent of hanging a ‘no blacks’ sign in a shop window. It’s a no-brainer to say that political uproar would follow any instance of the state trying to force a church to marry a gay couple against its will – and yet, a similar uproar would result if shari’a law were allowed to trump that of the state.
Socially, we’re at a turning point. Overseas as well as at home, western nations have begun the institution of universal human rights: protection from racial, religious or sexual discrimination, women’s rights, the rights of the child. In many cases, this has involved colliding head-on with previous religious or cultural mores: the idea of rape inside marriage, for instance, remains non-existent in many countries; in others, the marriage of girls as young as ten or thirteen is still common practice. But more and more, we are reaching a point at which, if we are to remain faithful to the idea of innate, universal rights, we must actively contradict religious doctrine – our own, as well as that of others.
Due to a combination of religious, historical and socio-cultural factors, many such rights are already part of western law, while still allowing for difference between individual nations. In many instances, Christian practice has already changed to accommodate these rights: the investiture of women bishops, the availability of contraception, the right of divorce and, in some cases, the legalisation of abortion are all examples of this. But with the exception of women in the church, the scriptural arguments against these things tend to be contextually extrapolated, rather than explicitly forbidden. Even divorce, while frowned upon, is ultimately permissible in a number of instances.
Homosexuality, however, is expressly called a sin. The most doctrinal leeway to be found is in forgiving it, as one might forgive theft or murder. With this in mind, it is almost miraculous to consider how much the gay rights movement has achieved. But still, the church has not been required to alter its own position. This is the wall foreign aid workers have run up against time and again: the idea that an injustice, if backed by religion, cannot be assailed in the usual fashion. At some level, total change is always circumscribed by – ironically – the universal right to freedom of religion, the worst incarnation of which, as with freedom of speech, is the freedom to be purposefully bigoted.
Sooner or later, the system needs must bend. There are three potential outcomes, only one of which seems even vagely palatable. But until that day comes, I’ll be content with such progress as comes my way. California now allows gay marriage – and I say, good on ’em.