It was probably never the affable Opposition leader-in-waiting Joe Hockey’s intention, but he’s made a convincing case for why the churches’ true believers should rethink their approach to same-sex marriage; stop being so biblically literal and reconsider your “questionable facts and outdated prescriptions” indeed.

If there is a God, and I’m not at all sure on that score, surely she wouldn’t have intended for Australia to fall behind most of the developed world in elevating same-sex couples from being second-class citizens in the modern day secular state to gain the full force – and responsibility – that comes with proper legal recognition of their primary relationship, mine included? Nor would God want gay and lesbian people and their families to feel so ostracised from the church, surely?

We still need a verifiable way of legally acknowledging those relationships – writing a will just to prove we’re attached seems downright morbid – but the well-organised church lobbies simply keep fronting up every time Canberra considers the issue, insisting gays and lesbians will destroy the institution of marriage and somehow undermine the raising of children.

Despite the fact Hockey was raised a Catholic, it’s unlikely Rome was listening to his Sydney Institute speech In Defence of God on Monday night: witness the Vatican’s not-so-subtle dog whistle last month to misogynist and homophobic “traditional” right-wing Anglicans unhappy about female and gay bishops and the blessing of gay marriages to come reunite with the Catholic Church. Perhaps they’ll read Hockey’s notes more closely when a mere trickle of disaffected defectors cross faiths.

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By coincidence on Monday, the same day Hockey delivered his speech, the Catholic Sydney and Melbourne archdioceses were giving their best literal biblical interpretations of same-sex relationships as the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee held public hearings in Melbourne over the Marriage Equality Amendment Bill 2009, a private member’s bill moved by Greens Senator Sarah Hanson-Young.

Their submissions – available online –will surely be easy for gay activists to counter when they rally in every capital city to launch the Year of Action for Same-S-x Marriage on November 28. Sydney Cardinal George Pell’s submission in particular gets itself into an awful knot over how to define marriage, a “natural institution whereby a man and a woman give themselves to each other for life in an exclusive sexual relationship that is open to procreation”.

Leaving aside that marriage is not so much “natural” as a construct whose responsibility has passed from the churches to the state over the centuries to adapt to changing societies, Pell himself recognises his church’s limited definition of marriage raises critical questions about the right of infertile heterosexuals to marry. To wit, Pell offers this non-sequitur: “Marriage between a man and a woman always has inherent capacity for, and orientation towards, the generation of children, whether that capacity is actualised or not.”

Infertile heterosexual couples may be left wondering how they will “actualise” the “generation” of children, short of IVF and intracytoplasmic sperm injection, assisted reproduction techniques about as popular with Pell’s church as the Mardi Gras.

Pell cites the 1948 UN Declaration of Human Rights, which declares “the right to marry and to found a family”, then claims a virtual compulsory connection between the two, stating “international law has always understood and affirmed the enduring, unchanging truth that marriage is a life-giving union of a man and a woman”.

But he makes no mention of article 9 of the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights, which holds “the right to marry and the right to found a family shall be guaranteed in accordance with the national laws governing the exercise of these rights” – while neither prohibiting or imposing same-sex marriage, the article recognises such diversity under national legislation. Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Norway and Sweden all recognise same-s-x marriage, and many more have national civil union and registered partnership schemes for its citizens.

Pell also quotes a 1990 UN Human Rights Committee report that states the right to marry “implies, in principle, the possibility to procreate”, yet he conveniently leaves out the same committee report also noted there was “no standard definition of family”, which could mean both “nuclear” and “extended”.

Pell then insults gay and lesbian couples by claiming their children suffer “profound loss and deprivation”, without any bothersome research to back his statement. He does however make time to quote from the Holy See from 2003: “Homosexual unions … do not need specific attention from the legal standpoint since they do not exercise this function [creating and raising children] for the common good.”

Surely the children of gays and lesbians benefit from having parents in a stable, recognised relationship? As for the common good, when politicians and priests tell gays and lesbians they are are inferior, it sanctions a society to discriminate against its fellow citizens and legitimises emotional and physical violence – and where is the good in that?

Gay people come from wider “traditional” families too; we hunger for spiritual nourishment just as much as anyone else, but when the lobbying churches use federal law as their proxy to tell us our relationships are unworthy of equal recognition, based on outdated biblical prescriptions, their legally and morally entrenched homophobia simply sets fathers and mothers against gay offspring, and the peace-preaching churches legitimise persecution and sanction family breakdown. That’s indefensible.

Steve Dow is a Sydney journalist.

I subscribe to Crikey because I believe in a free, open and independent media where news and opinions can be published that I can both agree with and be challenged by.

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