Two stories caught my eye in the current Sydney Star Observer. The first concerns my old mate The Cadaver: Government backdown.
The government has been accused of backing down from its promise to remove anti-gay discrimination from federal law after attorney-general Philip Ruddock said existing laws already offered adequate protection.
Ruddock made the comments in a letter to Doug Pollard, editor of gay newspaper Melbourne Star. The attorney-general was writing in response to an email from Pollard in May about the government’s planned veto of the ACT’s civil unions law. That legislation was overruled in June.
“The Australian government condemns discrimination in all its forms, including discrimination on the basis of sexuality,” Ruddock said in the letter.
However, he wrote, “The government does not believe that same-sex relationships have the same character as marriages and therefore considers that they should not be given the same legal and community status as marriage. The government believes that existing measures create a legal and policy framework that adequately addresses discrimination on the basis of sexuality.”
Is “does not believe that same-sex relationships have the same character as marriages” a statement about law or about morality or about the objective quality of relationships? If it is about law, the statement is almost tautological: same-sex marriages do not have the same character as other relationships or unions as they are treated differently in law. If it is about morality, are the moral grounds rooted in careful observation of relationships, or are they based on adherence to a particular tradition? If it is about quality of relationships or unions, it could be pointed out that same-sex unions exist which are in every way equal to other unions of a more conventional nature, indeed sometimes superior, if one considers mutual love, support, commitment and duration. As a female colleague said of my relationship with M, it lasted longer than her conventional marriage, and continues to be of significance.
In fact, the problem with Ruddock’s (and the goverment’s) approach is that a comparison between Australia and the UK suggests that we, in that light, are discriminated against on the basis of sexuality when it comes to legal recognition of our civil unions and all that flows from that, if discrimination means one treatment for group A and quite another for group B. After all, what else can discrimination mean? See my June 2006 entry Second-class citizens: now you know what you really are….
Ruddock, of course, speaks for an allegedly secular government, and the issue of same-sex unions is a matter of civil law. There one does not expect discrimination. Churches, and the like, on the other hand may define their practices according to their particular view of things, and there the government should not venture, except where the practice (human sacrifice, for example, or advocating suicide bombing) might manifestly be obnoxious culturally and legally. Even there, a government needs to have very powerful reasons before itself trespassing into discriminatory laws, or imposing conformity. And yes, it can be a minefield.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, the subject of the second story to catch my eye, is after all in a different position.
The leader of the Anglican Church, archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, has been accused of deserting gays and lesbians after saying they need to change their ways to be welcome in his faith. Anglican conservatives welcomed his comments, saying Williams was rightly distancing himself from his previous support for gays in the church. Liberals said his comments confirmed their fears Williams was becoming more conservative.
Williams made the comments in an interview with a Dutch newspaper last week. He denied it was time for the church to accept homosexual relationships, saying it should be welcoming but not inclusive. He said gays and lesbians must accept the traditional teaching of the church.
“I don’t believe inclusion is a value in itself. Welcome is,” he said, London newspaper The Telegraph reported. “We don’t say, ‘Come in and we ask no questions.’ I do believe conversion means conversion of habits, behaviours, ideas, emotions. Ethics is not a matter of a set of abstract rules, it is a matter of living the mind of Christ. That applies to sexual ethics.”
In an effort to prevent a split in the church over the issue, Williams said he had backed a resolution which says homosexual practice is incompatible with the Bible.
While a professor in divinity at Oxford University in 1989, Williams wrote that the “pressure that some church figures put upon people of differing sexual identities is a greater disgrace than anything else seen in the church”, The Telegraph reported.
Reverend Giles Goddard, chairman of England’s liberal Inclusive Church, said Williams’s new stance was “astonishing”.
“The implication is that there is no justification in scripture for the welcome of lesbian and gay people. It appears that he has moved into the conservative camp,” Giles said, 365gay.com reported…
Now you can think what you like about the Archbishop’s current position — and I disagree with him — but he is within his rights to enunciate church teaching, which is not mandatory on the community as a whole, or even on the Anglican Church, as it happens, which has not yet committed to any idea of episcopal infallibility. That is where Ruddock, I think, is going beyond the call of duty; what he says affects everyone.