Compromising Marriage Equality

neverMP Tim Wilson has suggested that marriage equality campaigners might be able to achieve a free vote in parliament if they’re willing to compromise – but how do you compromise on equality?

Yesterday I wrote about the suggestion, emanating from Liberal circles, that if the LGBTI community were willing to compromise, we could have same-sex marriage sooner rather than later. But it would not be Equal Marriage: it would be a second-class version which would entrench a form of cultural apartheid. Can we square the circle?

Where Tim Wilson and I agree

In his Acton Lecture last week Tim Wilson said:

“A secular society is one which respects religious liberty, but recognises its place as a primarily private practice. Faith ends at the temple door. It has a limited place in the public square. There is no room for religion in public institutions, such as schools and hospitals. Equally unless they want to accept secular strings, religious institutions can’t accept public monies to deliver services to the community.”

Agreed: for a multi-cultural society to flourish, religious and cultural differences must be reserved to the private domestic realm, where the degree of participation is rightly a matter of personal choice. All else, especially taxpayer owned or taxpayer supported, has to be strictly secular for a pluralistic nation to function. Religious schools in particular.entrench division.

Marriage is more problematic because it straddles the private and public realms. In a theocracy, all marriage happens under religious rules. In a properly ordered multi-cultural society, there is no clash between the rights of LGBTI people to marry, and of religious people to practice their faith. Marriage is a purely civil, government matter.

Hard v Soft Landings

Tim Wilson opposed a plebiscite but voted for it out of party loyalty, and now considers the idea dead. Having discharged his obligation to the party, he expresses hopes that a “soft landing” on marriage might be possible, straddling both civil rights and religious traditions. I am not clear exactly what that means, but, listening to his recent Acton Lecture, he seems to envisage a negotiated compromise that would give marriage equality campaigners and religious opponents each “approximately 80%” of what they want. He contrasted this with possible “hard landings”

  • a marriage law with wide ranging exemptions on the grounds of religion and conscience
  • one with no exemptions except for minister of religion, such as Labor favors

He ruled out a marriage law of the first type. But he warned that failure to reach a compromise solution now might lead to the imposition of the second kind of marriage law under a future Labor government. He’s offering a compromise, a classic political solution. This would be fine, if it were a question of politics. But it isn’t. It’s a matter of justice, which means politics will never find a resolution

80% Equality is Still Inequality

While a political compromise might seem attractive, it’s impossible. Partial equality is a nonsense. Marriage Equality, if it means anything, must mean that the precise same laws, conditions and terminology applies, regardless of the sex, sexuality, gender, gender identity or intersex status of the individuals involved. This is non-negotiable.

Furthermore, to erect parallel marriage laws sets an alarming precedent. One law for the self-proclaimed “religious”, another for everyone else would open a pathway to all sorts of dangerous and divisive legislation, sanctioning discrimination against, say, people of different faiths, or marital status, of which we already have too many examples.

You can’t be a little bit pregnant, and you can’t be a little bit equal, either. Either we are equal or not. There is no such thing as 80% equality. To pass a law enshrining that nonsense would not end the fight: it would merely fuel an ongoing war that could well grow to consume all the remaining special privileges religious organisations currently cling to.

Put simply, regardless of how much Wilson and other politicians may wish it, there is no room for compromise, and it is folly to look for one. But I believe there is a way to satisfy both parties without compromising the principle of equality.

Compromise Is Still Possible

Beyond exemptions for clergy, no religious exemptions can in all fairness be entertained. That is not negotiable. So if there is no room for compromise on the ‘What’ of marriage equality, is there yet room for compromise on the ‘How’?

I think there is. People who work in marriage-centred businesses could be put out of business overnight if they are forced, against their will, to cater for same sex couples. It would fuel resentment and potentially fan a backlash. Fairness requires that we offer them a transition strategy, and this opens up room for negotiation.

Conditional time-limited exemptions

Firstly, time-limited exemptions could be provided to any pre-existing marriage-focused small business or sole trader, e.g.:

  • reception centres and other facilities for hire
  • wedding planners
  • civil celebrants
  • bridal shops
  • other businesses where weddings generate more than 50% of their income.

Exemptions would expire five years after the passing of the marriage equality legislation. This gives owners and employees time and opportunity to either sell their business, find new jobs, or develop other sources of income outside the wedding industry. Or simply change their minds and decide we’re not so bad after all.

These exemptions would not be available to:

  • new businesses founded after the passage of the act
  • businesses for which weddings do not form their principal focus or source of income, such as hotels, restaurants, car hire
  • corporate entities
  • franchise businesses

In this fashion conscientious objectors will not be seriously and permanently disadvantaged by the passage of the law, and the principle of 100% indivisible equality is maintained, at the price of a small delay in its full realization. That’s a compromise I, for one, could live with.

Who will be the person who squares the circle and delivers equal marriage? Over to you, Tim.

About the author

Veteran gay writer and speaker, Doug was one of the founders of the UKs pioneering GLBTI newspaper Gay News (1972) , and of the second, Gay Week, and is a former Features Editor of Him International. He presented news and current affairs on JOY 94.9 FM Melbourne for more than ten years. "Doug is revered, feared and reviled in equal quantities, at times dividing people with his journalistic wrath. Yet there is no doubt this grandpa-esque bear keeps everyone abreast of anything and everything LGBT across the globe." (Daniel Witthaus, "Beyond Priscilla", Clouds of Magellan, Melbourne, 2014)