I'm voting yes, but I don't want to.

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This plebiscite on same sex marriage has divided society in a depressingly predictable way. The loudest voices have consulted their ideological camp leaders, ingested the slogans, and regurgitated them on queue to the ravenous reporters; satiated only by sound bites.

Why do same sex couples want to get married? If they want to be recognised from a Christian perspective then this is a matter for the church, or should be. If they are seeking equality in the eyes of the law then this is the exclusive domain of the state… or should be. But first, what is marriage? The common law definition used until 2004 was:

“…marriage, as understood in Christendom, may for this purpose be defined as the voluntary union for life of one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others” ~ Lord Penzance, Hyde vs, Hyde

Then the Marriage Amendment Act of 2004 added a formal definition:

“marriage means the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”

It also expressly forbade same sex unions conducted overseas from being recognised in Australia. The transition from a common law definition to a codified one, whilst being functionally rather toothless, was a symbolic act of solidarity between the Liberal party and the Christian factions which they represented. Despite the archaic term Christendom being absent in the official definition, it is without doubt based on traditional Christian values. The then Attorney-General Philip Ruddock further extolled these atavistic morals during the second reading of the act where he stated that the “…possible erosion of the institution of marriage,” which is the “…best environment for the raising of children” was a primary justification for the amendment. That this act received no opposition from the other side of the aisle was a staggering act of moral cowardice, leaving us now in the common but curious position of having religious values encoded into the laws of a secular society. This contradiction is at the heart of the matter and all future matters of a similar ilk (conservatives read: “flow on effects”).

We need to talk about the foundational values of our society in order to make sense of this issue. Western culture is the torchbearer of the universal human values that have been passed down through multiple civilisations and represent the apex of what our species has come up with thus far regarding how to prosper both individually and collectively. The foundation of this is freedom of expression, from which freedom of speech directly flows. Freedom of speech is the mechanism by which civilisation evolves. This evolution is reflected in and codified by the governments we empower and entrust with our well being.

When a government sanctifies and enshrines the morals of a subset of its constituents in law this morality ascends to an authoritative position to which it is not entitled, and thus freedom of expression is curtailed. Specifically, there is no legitimacy to Christianity having an impact on the rights that the government affords its citizens. This is a restriction on the scope of expression of the many based on the interests of the few. It rubs both ways however as the populace also does not have the right to dictate the internal operations of a religion; unless they are committing crimes, hurting people etc.

The problem then is not that Christians do not want to alter their ceremony to allow same-sex marriage, which they see as an erosion of their ancient tradition, which it is. It is that we have allowed an institution based on an ancient and functionally irrelevant pre-medieval doctrine to perpetuate and reinforce its influence on a purportedly secular society. The Church cannot have its cake and eat it too. By insinuating their ceremony into our laws, they have opened themselves up to the inexorable moral self-criticism which drives the progress of civilisation towards higher manifestations of universal human values. The evolution of society trumps the sanctity of an illegitimate incursion into our secular democracy.

Ideally, the term marriage should be completely removed from all legislation, and all the rights associated with it transferred to a civil union which could be undertaken by any willing and consenting adults. If people want to be recognised as “married” under the eyes of God, Vishnu, Satan or Gandalf, that is entirely up to them and completely irrelevant as far as the state is concerned. If we don’t concede that the social fabric is self regulating, we concede the necessity of fascism.

I don’t want to vote “yes” because it is genuinely troubling to erode freedom of expression for any reason, even in order to broaden the reach of equality. There is a bug in the system though, one created by the Church in an attempt to solidify its power. The time has come for the system to correct itself. By ultimately extricating the Church from their privileged position they will be afforded them the same protections currently working against them. Freedom of Expression, Freedom of Speech and yes, Freedom of Religion are all sacrosanct, but only truly so when the law is indifferent. For now we must work to purify our democracy by ironing out these kinds of wrinkles. Vote “Yes”.

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