In support of Marriage Equality

[Speaking in the Seanad during Second Stage of the Thirty-fourth Amendment of the Constitution (Marriage Equality) Bill]

I thank the Minister for her commitment to meaningful and important social reform legislation and to this amendment. It will enable us to hold our heads high. At the risk of being complacent, I am one of the people who believes the referendum will pass and will pass easily. I do not believe it will be that terribly divisive, as there is a broad national consensus in favour of this equality measure, and I will not use these few moments – it will be less than eight minutes – as a polemic to try to sway the waverers.

It is important that we understand the nature of equality. Equality equals equality, not partial equality. Some people who are coming on board with this do not quite understand this and they need to understand it. Some well-meaning people have talked about exemptions or drop-out clauses as part of the legislation, the referendum or our constitutional position. They need to understand that they are suggesting that equality in this context will be somewhat less than full equality; it will be a grudging degree of partial equality which is bestowed out of some personal philosophical largesse or beneficence, but not out of any actual sense of justice. Equality is not something any person would grant, it is a reality and it is one I hope we will acknowledge in the context of this Bill.

People sometimes get upset if one uses historical parallels, but there was a historical parallel for a theoretical equality that was less than full equality, namely, that which occurred in the United States in the years following the civil war, and it could be argued, in some aspects of American life in the south until the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. This was the concept of “separate but equal”, the idea that the constitution guaranteed the equality of the races but individual states were allowed to pass laws that stated that development, services, social integration and so on could all be limited and given to different racial groups allegedly equally, but dispensed in different premises, through different administrations, through different budgets, etc. We now know that was not in fact full equality, but some sort of hybrid partial equality. Those who state they are in favour of the reform this referendum will bring but who want an opt-out clause are committing themselves to something less than full equality. If one believes in equality, one believes in full equality. We are now stating that citizens, regardless of their orientation, will have exactly equal rights to marriage and may not be discriminated against because of their orientation in terms of any aspect of fulfilling their right to achieve a marriage status.

I understand the religious opt-outs. My own belief is that we should have separate mandatory civil marriages for everybody with the option of having one’s wedding solemnified liturgically, if that is the wish of the individual. I do not think it should act as a surrogate for the role of the State in what should be a State supervised process. The referendum means, other than that, no-one who is involved in civil, commercial and social discourse may, in any sense, discriminate against a person, in any way, purely because they disapprove of their sexual orientation or personal marital relationships. It just will not fly. That sounds harsh for people who have grown up their entire life in the warm embrace of a particular religious feeling. They might say, “I do not approve of homosexuality, I do not want to be complicit in it and perhaps my soul is being compromised if I in some sense facilitate something which I think is wrong.” Those people must understand that they are wrong and it is just not the way it is going to be. If one really had that belief then they should vote “No” and some people will vote “No”. I believe and hope the referendum will be passed and the “No” vote will be defeated. Once the referendum is passed it will be the law of the land and will be part of our culture of civil rights. It is not something which in any sense becomes optional. It is something which must be embraced and respected in every way be it printing, making cakes, renting halls, acting as a singer at a wedding, etc. We, as a society, will frown on anybody who says “I won’t do this because I don’t like your orientation or the kind of marriage you are having.” That is not the way it is going to be. I am sorry if I sound hardline. My advice to people is to think of an alternative line of work if that is the way they want to treat this situation.

Let us remember that people felt just as philosophically committed to the notion of the separation of races. Until comparatively recently, such separation was considered entirely appropriate for different religions. I will not quote any individual religions here. We are often accused of bashing my own mother church of catholicism. In fact, catholicism was one of the earliest churches to buy into outlawing slavery, which is to its credit, when other religions continued to use it as a justification for slavery and other discriminatory practices. Many people believed, and I could read out quotes but I will not, that it was God’s pre-ordained plan that the races should remain separate. As one famous legislator in Arizona, United States, said “If God wanted the races mixed why did He put some of them in Africa, some of them in Asia and some of them in Europe. He did it for a purpose to keep us apart.” This was the kind of ethical thinking that people had, that separation was based on a rational concept of rights, limited rights and the idea that some people were entitled to more rights than others.

I support the legislation and will support the referendum being passed. As an aside, I keep thinking that if everybody understood science a bit better, a lot of problems would go away. There are still a lot of people who believe that sexual orientation is some kind of a soft lifestyle choice in the same way as smoking, playing cricket or something like that. It is not. It is a very intrinsic and biologically determined part of what people are. It is not something that people opt-in or opt-out of; it is what they are. In any sense, discriminating against people because of what they are is assuming the same licence that one can discriminate against the people based on any part of what they are, be it their height, physical ability or race.

I am not saying that people who oppose this legislation are not right-minded but they are mistaken. I believe that most right-minded, well-informed people who think this issue through will lend their support to the issue. I urge every person to look into their soul and remember what we are passing. This is not something that we, as heterosexuals, are granting out of a sense of noblesse obligeto the poor benighted homosexuals. It is not that. We are acknowledging an existing full right. This is not something we are granting. This is something that is there which we are just recognising. The people need to recognise it for all its ramifications.

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