While preparing dinner tonight I listened to a podcast interview with the former Justice of the High Court of Australia, Justice Michael Kirby, who was interviewed about his perception that religion – and more particularly the public profession of religious beliefs – is on the increase in Australian public life, and not necessarily in a positive and constructive manner. While I don’t believe that faith and religion needs to be purely private undertaking – as Justice Kirby would have it – neither should it be something that underpins public discourse in an explicit way.
The reason for my post, however, was brought about by Justice Kirby’s discussion around issues concerning marriage equality (that is, opening the ‘institution’ of marriage up to couples of the same sex). I have previously written on this topic, and so Justice Kirby’s intervention in this ongoing public debate immediately attracted my attention.
At the heart of the proposed solution from Justice Kirby was a differentiation between the bringing about of the civil law reality of marriage and the religious wedding ceremony, whereby the situation that exists in France, Spain, Germany, Turkey, Argentina, Japan and Russia might be adopted. This situation requires all marriages to be brought into legal reality – in terms of the civil law – by government authority, in the form of a secular legal event overseen by government officials. Only after this has taken place can a religious wedding ceremony be celebrated should a couple wish to bring that dimension to their marriage.
To my way of thinking, this approach has a number of things that commend it, including:
- The State can define ‘marriage’ however they want to, since Churches and other religious entities will have no active role in bringing the civil law reality of marriage into being.
- The wedding ceremony will be entirely a religious ceremony, rather than the current mix of religious and civil that is necessary to ensure that the civil marriage is brought into reality.
- Alternatively, yet along similar lines, should a couple prefer a civil wedding ceremony there will be more freedom since it will be freed from the need to ensure that the civil marriage is brought into reality.
- Speaking personally, and somewhat selfishly, religious ministers would spend less time attending to government paperwork – effectively becoming unpaid agents of the government – since they would no longer be responsible for civil paperwork.
No doubt the number of wedding ceremonies would decrease, simply because there is no legal requirement to take part in a religious wedding ceremony in order to be considered ‘married’ in the eyes of the State. Those who choose to partake in a wedding ceremony, particular one of a religious nature, will do so – hopefully – for a different range of reasons, ones that are not simply about ‘getting a piece of paper’.
The proposal suggested – if even implicitly – by Justice Michael Kirby is one that is worthy of further consideration particularly in light of the current public discourse about how marriage should be defined. Perhaps as part of that public debate, we should also be brave enough to examine how marriage is brought into reality as well.