Greg Sheridan: Yes to same-sex marriage and to religious freedom

Assuming we get to vote on same-sex marriage, the most important question is the principle of the thing. Also important, however, are what the result will mean for religious liberty and for the onward march of identity politics.

I will be voting Yes for straightforward reasons. The idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment between a man and a woman has lost social consensus and is honoured more in the breach than the practice. Therefore it is not reas­on­able for the state to enforce this ideal.

All gay couples who wish to be in a formal partnership already get full legal rights as part of civil unions. This argument does not make same-sex marriage superfluous but is a supporting argument for it. Once the law accepts that gay couples can adopt children, then the overwhelming priority in the whole question is the welfare of the children. All children benefit from their parents being as committed to each other, and to them, as possible. Legal marriage helps the children of gay couples as it does the children of heterosexual couples.

However, I do take Christian teaching about marriage and the purpose of life very seriously. I believe Christianity to be true and to be overwhelmingly beneficial for society. I am not asking the Christian churches to change their doctrines. But they need to win adherence to their doctrine, in this case, through persuasion and example, not through the law.

The considerations of Christian morality have been much more complex through history than most participants in the debate on either side acknowledge. The greatest Christian theologian was the 13th-century Italian Dominican, Thomas Aquinas, and all of Western Christianity lives in his shadow. I was surprised to learn recently that he held the view that prostitution should not be illegal.

Let me hasten to say that I am not remotely, in any way, equating same-sex marriage with prostitution.

But Aquinas’s view, that there were many things which were immoral which should not be illegal, is an ancient and venerable tradition throughout Christian thinking. Aquinas wrote, for example, that regular state law must “leave certain things unpunished on account of the condition of those who are imperfect, and who would be deprived of many advantages, if all sins were strictly ­forbidden and punishments appointed for them”.

Similarly, Aquinas asserted that regular law could not “exact perfect virtue from man, for such virtue belongs to few and cannot be found in so great a number of people as human law has to ­direct”.

Aquinas generally held the view that it was not reasonable to legislate all the obligations of believers on non-believers. In reaching these conclusions, he was influenced by the equally great Saint Augustine, the 4th century theologian and bishop. He too came to the conclusion that attempting to criminalise prostitution would make society ungovernable.

All of this, it hardly needs to be said, is not an argument for an anything-goes approach to social norms. The Christian churches argue, with all the weight of tradition and history, that it is of the essence of marriage that it involves a man and a woman. That is certainly a respectable view and it deserves to be heard with respect. It is not a view that any longer expresses a social consensus.

Nonetheless, I think the churches were right to join this debate and to do so relatively vigorously. They have every right to put their view of what constitutes the good life, and to argue to shape a consensus, and then of course they will abide by the law as it develops.

However, the law should not oppress the churches or conscientious Christians either.

On the whole, the Christian churches have participated in this debate with great respect for their opponents. There has been some serious disrespect and abuse and most of it has come from the wilder shores of the Yes case, with threats, abuse and contempt handed out to people with whom they disagree.

I don’t think this invalidates the Yes case but it does reinforce that this move could herald a significant assault on religious freedom.

Oddly enough, I think even that argues for voting Yes — the best chance of ensuring religious freedom will come if this change occurs under the Turnbull government and the government simultaneously strengthens its pitifully weak legal protections.

Same-sex marriage is virtually certain to come about, either under this government or the next one, whether that is Liberal or Labor. So it is much better to do it now and guarantee religious freedom at the same time. The churches have done a real service by highlighting the religious freedom issues.

Christians should compromise on same sex-marriage but fiercely defend religious freedoms to the very death. These rights do not concern primarily either priests and pastors being forced to conduct same-sex marriages, nor even bakers and hall owners having to provide services to activities of which they conscientiously disapprove. Priests and pastors will never be coerced in this way. There is absolutely no social consensus behind such coercion.

The real challenge to religious freedom is, however, very grave and you can see it coming. The Catholic Archbishop of Hobart circulated a moderate and entirely respectful pamphlet, Don’t Mess with Marriage — and Tasmania’s anti-discrimination commission agreed to hear a complaint against him.

The complaint was eventually withdrawn, which was a tactical decision. But the principle of the complaint is clear. Simply asserting traditional Christian doctrine is prima facie an offence in the eyes of the crypto-totalitarian, lawyer activist class that is increasingly dominant in the toxic age of identity politics.

Overseas examples abound. An award-winning orthodox Jewish girls school in London has three times been refused the renewal of its state accreditation in part because it won’t teach about gender reassignment in the approved way. Schools should certainly be compelled to teach that all human beings deserve complete respect. Gay and transgender people should certainly be protected from hate speech. But there is a grave threat that merely teaching their traditional doctrines will expose religious institutions to increasing legal assault.

This is not a trivial matter and Yes advocates who do not wish to harass and suppress religious freedom should address it honestly, as the whole debate should be carried out civilly. But the signs of our times, and the intemperate, moralistic fury that increasingly accompanies identity politics, mili­tates heavily against this.

On this matter of religious freedom, however, the churches should battle with every resource at their disposal.