Cardinal Keith O’Brien, President of the Bishops’ Conference of Scotland and Britain’s most senior Catholic, has hit out at the British Government’s plans to legalize marriage equality, saying in an opinion piece for The Telegraph that Britain cannot afford to “indulge” this “madness.” It is O’Brien’s statement that legalizing gay marriage is, in human rights terms, the same as legalizing slavery that has caused the most controversy however.
In O’Brien’s opinion piece, the Cardinal first ventures that at the time civil partnerships were introduced, supporters promised that they didn’t want marriage. Now, he bemoans that gay couples are pushing for marriage equality. He also reiterates he didn’t support civil partnerships in the first place because “such relationships are harmful to the physical, mental and spiritual well-being of those involved,” but he gives no evidence to support this claim.
He then charges: “it is clear that this proposal is not about rights, but rather is an attempt to redefine marriage for the whole of society at the behest of a small minority of activists.” This without recognizing the fact that many same-sex couples had always wanted a marriage but had to take what was given them at the time as a means of accessing the legal benefits and securities they had previously been denied. Also, legalizing gay marriage has never been shown to impact heterosexual marriage.
Next, O’Brien attempts to support his case against marriage equality with this puzzling line:
If same-sex marriage is enacted into law what will happen to the teacher who wants to tell pupils that marriage can only mean – and has only ever meant – the union of a man and a woman?
Will that teacher’s right to hold and teach this view be respected or will it be removed?
Firstly, it’s utterly untrue that marriage has only ever meant the union of a man and a woman. The Cardinal should, perhaps, read his Bible for evidence of the contrary.
Second, Britain gives no public school teacher the right to explicitly proselytize in the classroom, so this should never happen on those grounds alone. However, accepting the premise but rejecting the conclusion, a teacher would be able to teach reality: that many religions usually only recognize marriage as between a man and a woman, but several governments have decided that they will recognize same-sex marriages so they can help those couples raise families. This need not be loaded or even politically charged.
In Article 16 of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, marriage is defined as a relationship between men and women. But when our politicians suggest jettisoning the established understanding of marriage and subverting its meaning they aren’t derided.
With this O’Brien seems to think that we should close down debate just because he’s against legalizing same-sex marriage based on his religious opinions about marriage. Furthermore, no one could reasonably argue that a discussion on widening marriage to same-sex couples constitutes a breach of human rights for the religious as it in no way forces them to participate or even recognize such unions.
O’Brien’s next trick is to offer that marriage predates government and therefore reshaping laws surrounding marriage should be out of the government’s hands. Skirting whether it is historically accurate to assert that marriage predates government, one thing is sure: marriage also predates Catholicism and Christianity as a whole, so any modern religious claim to marriage is tenuous at best. It seems clear then that marriage must be in the hands of society, society elects a government and that government is invested with the power to change institutions to reflect the needs of society. There can be no objection to marriage equality on these grounds then.
Regardless of this, O’Brien next plays the “Think of the Children” card:
This brings us to the one perspective which seems to be completely lost or ignored: the point of view of the child. All children deserve to begin life with a mother and father; the evidence in favour of the stability and well-being which this provides is overwhelming and unequivocal. It cannot be provided by a same-sex couple, however well-intentioned they may be.
As I said over Lord Carey’s comments, no matter how many times religious opposition asserts this claim, there is no such evidence to support it, and furthermore there is a wealth of evidence that suggests same-sex couples can raise children at least as well as their heterosexual counterparts. Nevertheless, O’Brien continues:
Same-sex marriage would eliminate entirely in law the basic idea of a mother and a father for every child. It would create a society which deliberately chooses to deprive a child of either a mother or a father.
No argument needed here: it wouldn’t eliminate anything and to suggest the child even cares what gender their parents are seems, on its face, ludicrous — all they require is a stable, loving home, which is something British same-sex couples have legally been able to give children for a number of years now anyway.
O’Brien next uses the slippery slope idea that if gay marriage is legalized why not legalize polygamy? I find O’Brien’s fear of even discussing this entirely irrational (especially given that he’s fond of religious views on marriage) but there are in fact a number of evidenced-based issues related to polygamous marriage that would have to be properly considered, from women’s rights to the restructuring of the legal framework around marriage. This says nothing about legalizing same-sex marriage however, because allowing for one does not necessitate allowing the other.
O’Brien then returns to the topic of children:
In November 2003, after a court decision in Massachusetts to legalise gay marriage, school libraries were required to stock same-sex literature; primary schoolchildren were given homosexual fairy stories such as King & King. Some high school students were even given an explicit manual of homosexual advocacy entitled The Little Black Book: Queer in the 21st Century. Education suddenly had to comply with what was now deemed “normal”.
First, a fairy-tale depicting a same-sex couple. How horrifying.
Second, I’ll give O’Brien the benefit of the doubt and say that he has been misinformed on how The Little Black Book came to be at the same venue as a high school talk on LGBT issues, the short of it being that it was an oversight that Fenway Community Health officials took responsibility for and, furthermore, no copies were ever actually in the hands of teenagers. This has, however, been a lie that right wing groups have used in an attempt to smear LGBT advocacy group GLSEN. Perhaps O’Brien should check his sources before making such statements rather than risk maligning those who are innocent.
Cardinal O’Brien then offers that the government has been “staggeringly arrogant” to offer church exemptions so that no religious body is forced to recognize or preside over a same-sex marriage.
Most controversially, he continues:
Imagine for a moment that the Government had decided to legalise slavery but assured us that “no one will be forced to keep a slave”.
Would such worthless assurances calm our fury? Would they justify dismantling a fundamental human right? Or would they simply amount to weasel words masking a great wrong?
This rhetoric is completely devoid of logic, and the comparison is entirely offensive — the ugliness of it shall be left to stand for itself and I won’t say more on it than that.
Cardinal O’Brien then returns to aping that the government risks demolishing “a universal human right” and goes on to say that legalizing same-sex marriage will shame the United Kingdom in the eyes of the rest of the world.
Sadly, Cardinal O’Brien, despite a torrent of posturing, fails to offer any convincing or evidence-based arguments against civil marriage equality, and his religious opinions should sway no one.
Cardinal O’Brien’s attack on marriage equality follows former Archbishop Lord Cary last month making a concerted, if fact-free, assault on the government’s plans to legalize same-sex marriage while helping to launch the campaign group the Coalition for Marriage, a religious conservative group quietly being championed by leaders of The Christian Institute who want to prevent the government from legalizing marriage equality.
UPDATE: Cardinal O’Keith, having faced criticism for his remarks, has been forced to defend his position, saying that preventing gay marriage is grounded in “natural law.” Click here for the latest.