Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, last week launched an attack against the British Government’s decision to legalize same-sex civil marriage. In a piece written for the Daily Mail he alleges that this change will destroy the institution, but the facts he uses to support this assertion are severely lacking.
Under the title “Marriage will ONLY remain the bedrock of a society if it is between a man and a woman” Carey opens by saying that he was “baffled” by Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement to the Conservative Party Conference last year in which Cameron said that, because he is a Conservative who believes in commitment, he supports legalizing same-sex civil marriage.
Carey, while offering that he has no issue with gay rights or a particular interest in what should define Conservative Party policy, takes exception with Cameron’s stance. He believes same-sex civil marriage will “fatally weaken what is still one of our country’s greatest strengths — the institution of marriage.” He also calls the government’s decision to legalize same-sex marriage one of the biggest “political power grabs” in history.
Now these are bold claims. Let’s see what evidence Lord Carey has to support them.
He offers that the state “does not own the institution of marriage” and adds “nor does the church.” He professes:
“The honourable estate of matrimony precedes both the state and the church, and neither of these institutions have the right to redefine it in such a fundamental way.”
This appeal to history does Carey’s case no favors though, because the state – whether the British government or otherwise – has traditionally regulated marriage through various supporting networks as evidenced by the benefits, obligations, rights and responsibilities given married couples — all of which have changed over time to meet society’s needs.
The state, then, does not need to “own” the institution in order to observe how it operates in civil society and make adjustments according to changing demands made by that society. That the state has the power to do so is because the electorate confers that power through the political and democratic process.
Also, because Lord Carey is claiming that marriage is not “owned” by the church, he cannot later make an appeal to the religious definition of marriage and thus can only play in the secular arena. This is a bold move, and one that will wound his case later.
Carey next makes an appeal to tradition.
Lord Carey contends that for thousands of years, “the union of one man and one woman has been the bedrock of societies across cultures,” across the world.
This is an appeal that is as flimsy as it is short, and to take just one crack at it: just because something has been done a certain way doesn’t mean it must always be done that way.
Carey goes on to offer that marriage is “an integral part of the modern world,” and continues:
Marriage is one of the most important aspects of our culture, and one that the public hold in great esteem. Most people still get married, and many young people aspire to be married. Even if couples choose not to, when children come along many of them instinctively tie the knot.
Lord Carey’s claim that most people “instinctively” still get married fails to mention the fact that, while a number of people do still choose to get married, marriage rates in Britain have over the past few decades seen a decline.
This is a fact highlighted by an article published by the very same newspaper Lord Carey is writing for. The Daily Mail in November 2011 published an article that, bemoaning the decline of marriage figures and swiping at Deputy PM Nick Clegg over the marriage issue, highlights 2009 as a record low for marriage.
As was widely reported at the time, figures released over the last few years by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) indicate that, of the 44.9 million adults living in England and Wales, only around 48 per cent have chosen to marry, while the number of those foregoing marriage has doubled since the 1970s. This decline has been put down to a number of possible factors including the precarious economic situation, but also the fact that people are increasingly seeing cohabiting as an alternative to marriage.
To offer that marriage is still a popular choice for couples, which it is, without admitting to the shifting of weight from marriage toward cohabiting, which has been significant, does our discussion a disservice because it pretends that society’s views on marriage have not changed, when clearly they have.
Lord Carey then makes an appeal to the merits of the nuclear family.
By their actions they affirm their belief in what many of us know to be true — that the ideal is for children to be raised by a mother and father who are married.
Academic study after academic study has shown that adults, children and the wider community all prosper because of marriage.
Carey’s truism is disingenuous. It is true that two-parent family households have been shown to provide a strong environment for successful child-rearing. However, I am aware of no rigorous or consensus-backed study, and Lord Carey provides us with no such evidence, that has demonstrated the two-parent family must consist of a mother and a father in order for the benefits of marriage to manifest. Indeed, there are a number of studies that have shown same-sex parent families can raise children at least as well as their heterosexual counterparts, this even when hampered by a lack of legal recognition.
What evidence Lord Carey does appeal to in his next paragraph is troublesome:
A report recently published by researchers at the University of British Columbia found that cultures where monogamy is the norm are safer, while countries in which other arrangements are more common have higher levels of serious crime.
Why Lord Carey highlights this study as if it proves his case is puzzling because the study (which he provides no easy reference for) makes no explicit comment with regards to sexual orientation but is in fact assessing polygyny compared to monogamous marriage.
Taking it on good faith that Carey is not meaning to insinuate that same-sex couples are less capable of monogamy than heterosexual couples, the study’s overview does provide us with an affirmative response on the value of monogamous marriage based on several factors:
According to Henrich, monogamy’s main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygyny is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems. By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment, the study finds. Monogamy’s institutionalization has been assisted by its incorporation by religions, such as Christianity.
This speaks to nothing about the same-sex marriage question other than to inform on how rewarding monogamous relationships over multi-partner ones may be advantageous, and, perhaps, how religion has used its influence to perpetuate monogamy. Nothing there precludes same-sex marriage or argues its detriment.
Carey then launches into a personal anecdote with regards to his own marriage, saying he could not have managed these past five decades without the support of his wife.
Marriage is the glue that binds our country together. When a couple marries, they are not just joining with one individual, but connecting two families — and in doing so creating a support network far better than anything the state can supply.
This does not support Lord Carey’s objections to same-sex marriage. If anything, this waxing rosy on the value of marriage serves only to demonstrate its benefits beyond the legal context while at no turn offering a viable reason to exclude same-sex couples from those social moorings.
Carey, having testified to the benefits of marriage, next goes on the attack by again saying that same-sex marriage constitutes a “redefinition” that could destroy marriage as an institution. Unfortunately, existing evidence is not on Carey’s side.
In no country where same-sex marriage is legal has marriage as an institution imploded, something that was examined in 2010 during California’s Proposition 8 same-sex marriage trial where even gay marriage’s staunchest critics failed to provide a reason that same-sex couples should not have access to civil marriage.
Earlier, Carey offered that marriage is not owned by the church. Without an appeal to the religious definition of marriage he now finds his argument desperately lacking. As was shown in the Proposition 8 trial, definitions of marriage have changed over time, and indeed have been changed by religion, yet marriage has survived.
One might point out, in fact, that despite dire warnings over Britain’s civil partnerships and how they might undermine marriage, the imminent harms to marriage have never materialized. Thus Carey’s claim that a redefinition or revision of marriage spells annihilation for the institution falls flat on numerous counts.
But what of Britain’s civil partnerships?
Lord Carey says:
Marriage and civil partnerships have been defined for two different types of relationship and should be kept distinct — it is not and should not be ‘one size fits all’.
Civil partnerships were brought in to give same-sex couples the rights that they said they badly needed. These rights are virtually identical to those of married couples.
Again, what was once written into law is not forever set in stone. Moreover, without an appeal to a religious argument Carey fails to give adequate reasons as to why “one size fits all” should not apply when same-sex and opposite-sex relationships are equal under the law.
Second, same-sex marriage and heterosexual marriage will remain separate for religious purposes because the government’s plans will only cover civil marriage and, to stress this again, will not require religious institutions to support same-sex marriage.
Third, the rights offered by marriage and civil partnerships may be “virtually” the same but the perception of marriage’s value over that of civil partnerships, both in terms of historic and cultural weight, is clearly not (otherwise we would not be having this discussion). Lord Carey, while having talked marriage up in his previous several paragraphs, fails to make this leap.
Nevertheless, Carey then charges that expanding marriage to same-sex couples will require an extensive rewriting of British law.
The Government, I believe, has not fully thought through the implications. I understand that the word “marriage” appears about 3,000 times in UK legislation. It is woven into the fabric of our laws and I am not so sure that it can be so easily altered beyond all recognition.
Stonewall, one of the so-called “pressure groups” backing same-sex marriage recently published its draft bill to legalize same-sex marriage. A concise document, the draft bill sets out the changes that need to made in no more than a few pages, something the Daily Mail also picked up on when it ran its rather hysterical piece on how Stonewall proposes deleting gender markers from marriage law and instead using “parties to marriage” as part of the legal nomenclature. No matter the scale of the work involved though, for Lord Carey to contend that something should not be done simply because it may be taxing, especially in matters of civil equality, is a lazy argument.
One may be forgiven for feeling that Lord Carey is somewhat reaching when he next offers that if same-sex marriage is legalized children will be taught about gay marriage in schools and that this will be against parents’ wishes.
This is a tired line of discussion that seems borrowed from the American religious right, but it has even less impact in Britain because it fails to acknowledge that, through age-appropriate lessons, children are already taught about same-sex relationships. With that in mind, all that may be different in terms of what children are taught is a simple fact: same-sex couples can now marry. What, then, can parents object to about the teaching of a fact?
Lord Carey then plays the religious discrimination card.
He offers this barrage:
We know what will happen, for we have already had a taste of it — it will encourage religious discrimination. A marriage registrar from Islington believed in traditional marriage, and was disciplined by her employers for it. The elderly owners of a B&B believed in traditional marriage, and were successfully sued for it. Numerous Roman Catholic adoption agencies believed in traditional marriage, and were closed down for it.
These examples will be the thin end of the wedge if same-sex marriage is legalised.
This invokes a serious charge and so requires careful attention. Looking at the facts, however, an argument can be made that these cases are not about religious discrimination, as Lord Carey would like to assert, but sexual orientation discrimination related to assumed religious privilege. Let’s unpack that:
Lillian Ladele, the marriage registrar Lord Carey mentions, worked as a registrar at Islington town hall in north London for 16 years. She refused to officiate same-sex civil partnership ceremonies as a matter of ”religious conscience” and attempted to change her work rota in order to not have to deal with same-sex couples. When told that she would have to officiate such unions or face a gross-misconduct hearing for failing to do her job properly she felt compelled to resign. A legal battle then arose with Ladele claiming this amounted to religious discrimination. Ladele has, after an initial win, found little favor with the courts though, and an appeals court recently affirmed that she had in fact broken the UK’s laws on sexual orientation discrimination and refused her a supreme court appeal. Ladele is now appealing to the European Court of Human Rights, but she does so without government backing.
The second case is that of Hazel and Peter Bull who opened up their Cornwall home as a B&B. They refused a gay couple in a civil partnership a double room based on a married-couples only policy (that they failed to inform the couple of at the time of booking). The Bulls said this refusal was not about being anti-gay but rather their Christian belief that only married couples should share a bed. The gay couple argued that this was a de facto ban on same-sex couples because they currently can’t get married in Britain. A lower court ruling found that the B&B owners had breached Britain’s equality laws and an appeals court recently upheld that ruling, saying that while the B&B owners are indeed entitled to their sincerely-held religious beliefs, they do not have an unlimited right to manifest that religion in the public arena.
The third case involves Roman Catholic-backed adoption agencies that, rather than comply with Britain’s equality laws and offer services to same-sex couples in civil partnerships, chose to close their doors. However, one Leeds based adoption agency launched a so far unsuccessful legal battle over this, arguing that it should be exempt from equality laws per its religious rights and should be allowed to only serve those couples that meet its religious opinion of the best parents, that is to say married heterosexuals.
Significantly, these are all cases in which the religious are arguing for an accommodation in law — that is, special exemptions to act on their beliefs. Whether this should be granted them or not isn’t of question here (and there are arguments to be made on both sides), but what is shown is that it is only their assumed privilege to manifest their religion in a secular environment that has faced a challenge and not the right to personal and private beliefs as Lord Carey had offered.
In short, these examples do not prove Carey’s case, nor do they adequately show evidence for an increased likelihood of such incidents were same-sex marriage to be made legal in Britain.
Lord Carey then adds that he does not believe the public wants same-sex marriage, calling the move to legalize such unions “undemocratic.”
What is interesting is Lord Carey doesn’t bother to support this statement with, for instance, an appeal to a recent YouGov poll that suggests one in five people do not support same-sex marriage (or civil partnerships) while only around 46% categorically poll in favor, though those numbers do differ slightly across different polls.
You may ask why in rebutting Lord Carey’s arguments this essay includes those figures. It does us no good to try and pretend that, when asked, the British public are overwhelmingly in favor of same-sex marriage when we have data that suggests otherwise. Yet it also does us no good to pretend that minority rights should be put to a majority opinion poll.
Simply stated: it doesn’t matter whether a majority of the public supports same-sex marriage, it only matters whether, as a matter of equal treatment, civil marriage should be an option for same-sex couples. The answer to that, the British Government believes, is yes.
In addition, it is interesting that Carey mentions democracy because he sits unelected in the House of Lords as a matter of religious privilege, meaning he, unlike the British Government, is largely shielded from the democratic power of the public.
Carey then ends by saying he is pleased that a new coalition group has been started, the Coalition For Marriage, and he urges people to sign a petition they have created in the hope of “safeguarding an institution which is a vital part of British life.”
What to take from all this, then?
Lord Carey certainly has shown that marriage is important to some people, that there may be demonstrable benefits to monogamous marriage, and that he himself has found marriage to be of great worth.
He has not successfully or even close to sufficiently argued his case as to why same-sex couples should be excluded from marriage, nor has he supported his numerous assertions that legalizing same-sex marriage would devalue or otherwise corrupt heterosexual marriage. Put simply, without appealing to religion directly, Carey has no foundation on which to build his case. In fact, all he seems in danger of convincing us on is how attractive a union marriage might be and, given its flagging numbers, why we may wish to add fresh life to the institution by incorporating same-sex couples.
As to the British Government making a “power grab” of historic proportions, as Lord Carey charged in his opening gambit, we must ask from whom did Lord Carey suppose the power was being grabbed? The answer, of course, is the privilege the church and its believers had previously enjoyed in secular society– something that is the real issue at the heart of this debate.