Proposed changes to include same-sex relationships in the Commonwealth marriage act will not, if they are legislated by Parliament, suddenly lead to a landside of publicly recognised polygamous marriages. If, however, they are enacted on the grounds proposed – that of equal rites for gays and lesbians – then they will amount to a conscious enshrinement of discriminatory and unjust principles in the legislation.
At the moment, the label of marriage is reserved for life-long, monogamous, heterosexual relations on the basis of difference, not inequality. It is not on account of an absence of equal rights that I am described as a male, rather than a female, but simply an acknowledgement of my difference. Similarly, ‘marriage’ simply reflects the particular historical and social role that the relations to which it is usually applied have played in our society over a long period. Successive parliaments have appropriately extended the benefits associated with that particular relationship to de facto and same-sex couples. Same-sex non-biological parents may even be listed on the birth certificate to the exclusion of the sperm or egg donor.
However, the current argument to extend the label of marriage to include same-sex couples creates an enormous problem. The argument rests on the claim that consenting adults in long term relationships have the right to the title of marriage, irrespective of any historical and, particularly, religious objections. These objections are discriminatory and promote antiquated and, above all, unjust requirements for marriage by restricting it to heterosexual couples.
The key problem with this argument is that it cannot, by the very nature of its own logic, be restricted to same-sex couples. For example, the objections usually raised to polygamous marriage rest upon the very same historical and religious precedents declared invalid as criteria for marriage by the proponents of these changes. Thus, unless any changes to the legislation include all committed, long term, sexual relations between consenting adults, the exclusion of polygamous marriage (again, for example) will, on this argument, be a deliberate and self-conscious denial of justice to those polygamists desiring marital recognition. Whether or not any polygamists rush to the civil celebrant’s offices is beside the point. By discarding a definition of marriage based on difference, and replacing it with an open definition based on equal rights, but denying those newly articulated rights to a number of different groups, a newly acknowledged injustice will be enshrined in our laws.