Same-Sex Marriage: Religious Discrimination Denies Equality

By David Swanton

Posted Monday, 25 September 2017 in ON LINE opinion - Australia's e-journal of social and political debate 


Unjust discrimination is wrong. Most people condemn discrimination based on sex, race, disability or other status. They understand that it violates the sound ethical principle of equality for all humans. Discrimination based on sexual orientation, including through a prohibition on same-sex marriage, can be shown to be ethically equivalent to these other invidious and unethical forms of discrimination.

More generally, if discrimination is permitted against one group of people, then all groups are vulnerable.

Recently, some mainly conservative religious groups have argued strongly against same-sex marriage. Their arguments have origins in Christian scriptures, which they choose to believe. When these religious arguments impact on others and are proposed in a public policy context, it is appropriate that they and their theological foundations should be analysed and, if found deficient, rejected.

The outcome of such an analysis is that religious arguments on same-sex marriage are subjective, discriminatory and lack ethical merit.

First, religions lack objectivity. An objective approach requires reason to make a case for (or against) same-sex marriage, such as an appeal to the principle of equality for all humans. Respecting equality requires that if heterosexuals can marry whomever they want, then everyone should have that right. Most religious leaders (but not all religious people) reject this notion. Another relevant principle might be a utilitarian approach to the betterment of humankind. More people will be happier if they are permitted to marry whomever they want.

In contrast, a subjective approach reflects someone’s religious or other personal beliefs. A feature of most religions, including Christianity and Islam, is that they invoke one or more gods that are central to their teaching and beliefs. The beliefs are subjective because only people of a given religion believe in that religion’s god. This follows from the strong correlation between a person’s religious beliefs, their cultural heritage and the extent of their early childhood instruction in the religion. If the person were raised in a different culture and instructed in a different religion they would in all likelihood follow a different religion and have a different worldview, including on issues such as same-sex marriage.

Subjective personal arguments against same-sex marriage have no ethical merit. There are no means of determining what is right if an issue comes down to a subjective exchange of ‘my god knows more than your god and my views are right, including on same-sex marriage’. A better rationale is required in a public policy debate.

Second, some religions are inherently discriminatory, as they do not treat all people equally. To explore this lack of equality and the extent of this discrimination, let’s consider the following hypothetical scenario. What if a new religion were to be established tomorrow and an inspired person drafts religious text that reflects the views of their new God? The newly drafted religious text includes the following verses.

  • A white person should learn in quietness and full submission. I do not permit a white person to teach or to have authority over a non-white person; the white person must be silent.
  • Any white person who is arrogant enough to reject the verdict of the priest who represents your God must die.
  • A white person who works on God’s holy day will be put to death.
  • White people who reject God will be killed in a great flood, and the first-born sons of white people will also killed.
  • If a person has sex with a white person, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own hands.
  • Non-white people are protectors of white people. Non-white people can advise white people, then forsake them in bed, and then strike them lightly if they are disobedient.
  • People should fight against white people until all religion is only for God.

The above verses discriminate against a person’s colour. Many would consider them disgusting. They deny rights to a group of people, in this case white people. Such religious text should be treated with the contempt that any discriminatory text based on colour or race deserves.

The astute reader would realise that the first five of these verses have been extracted from the Christian Bible and, for good measure, the last two have been adapted from the Islamic Qur’an. The biblical text has been reworked to substitute the phrase ‘white person’ in scripture that condemns women, non-believers and same-sex activity, while verses from the Qur’an that discriminate against women and non-believers have been reworked. This scenario could have been changed by simple word substitution to instead discriminate against women, same-sex or black people, Christians or atheists. The new religion’s proponents might say that God moves in mysterious ways, the text is taken out of context (it applies to ancient events) or it is not meant to be taken literally. No explanations hide the underlying discrimination. Again, discrimination against any one group of people leaves all groups vulnerable to discrimination.

Anyone who condemns the discriminatory text in the hypothetical scenario should condemn the ethically equivalent scriptures in Christianity and Islam, including those verses condemning same-sex relationships. Consequently, society should also condemn any invidious discrimination based on colour, race, sex, sexual orientation, language or other status, including if it occurs in religion.

It is clear from the arguments above that mainstream religions and their lobbying groups have forfeited the moral high ground they might have coveted, as they revere subjective and discriminatory scriptures and reject objectivity and equality. Oblivious to this fact, conservative religious groups try to impose their views and values on others. Their arguments against same-sex marriage reflect homophobic religious text. More modern arguments include that same-sex marriage would take away religious freedom, affect children’s rights because every child should have a mum and dad, and that marriage is about procreation. These arguments have nothing to do with same-sex marriage. They are an attempt to justify same-sex discrimination under the pretence of an attack on religious freedom, an emotional appeal related to children’s rights, and a dated religious view about marriage.

Same-sex marriage does not pose a threat to freedom of speech or appropriate religious freedom. Some opponents of same-sex marriage might complain that they want to continue discriminating against same-sex people. Any such discrimination is unacceptable, whether same-sex marriage is permitted or not.

In general terms, to avoid conflict with the individual rights of others, a person’s right to practise their religion of choice should be limited so that it does not impact on others. If it were to impact on others, it would be contrary to a principle of equality that forms a key element of many religions. The Golden Rule proposes that we act toward others as we would have them act towards us. It suggests that if we do not want others to impose their religious or other values on us, then we should not impose our values on others. Similarly, if we don’t want others to discriminate against us, we should not discriminate against others, including on same-sex marriage. This is where hypocrisy becomes apparent. Many people, including those in conservative religious groups, apply the Golden Rule selectively; they don’t want to be discriminated against yet they choose to discriminate against those in same-sex relationships.

Same-sex marriage will not affect children’s rights. Every child has at least two biological parents (hence a mum and dad) and one or more parent carers. In addition, society should recognise that modern families now include one and many parent families, same-sex families, as well as parents who have adopted children.

Another argument that marriage is about a male and a female reproducing is unacceptable because it is not universalisable, otherwise it would apply with equal force to all parents (heterosexual or same-sex) who adopt children. Others cannot or choose not to have children, but these people are not banned from marrying. Children should have the best possible parents, whatever their status. Whether a child’s same-sex parents have the legal status of being married is irrelevant to the child’s upbringing, but extremely relevant to the parents’ status as equals in society.

Put simply, same-sex marriage is a societal construct that will allow two people who love each other to legally marry, regardless of their sexual orientation, sex or other status. Same-sex marriage will reduce legal discrimination against same-sex people and better humankind through improving the wellbeing of those who choose to marry. Most people realise this. Conservative religious groups ought to appreciate that people want to be happy and that others might not necessarily find happiness in the same ways that they do.

There are no fundamental dangers in same-sex marriage that require its repudiation. Religious arguments against same-sex marriage are subjective, reinforce discrimination, lack ethical merit and should be rejected in any public policy debate respecting equality. It would be hoped that reason and objectivity is used to progress social reform on same-sex marriage and other issues; a more accepting world will be a better place. 


David Swanton is an ethicist, scientist and director of Ethical Rights . He is also ACT Chapter Coordinator for Exit International.