Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Sing if you're glad to be second-class

So here’s me feeling all pleased about living in a country where, at least where public transport is concerned, there are no second-class citizens. The elderly, the disabled, young people, and middle-aged chancers who’ve had their licences taken off them just because of a spot of light brain surgery, can all relax in the knowledge of free or discount travel by one form or another across the land.

And then, less than 12 hours after blogging about how nice that is, I pick up The Herald to find one of Scotland's leading churchmen, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, calling for a countrywide vote to declare perhaps ten percent of our population second-class.

The leading celibate bachelor and relationships expert wants, he says, a referendum on the gay marriage issue. And he’d like it before the independence one, please, because providing a legal basis for letting people with imaginary friends deprive another section of society of a right everyone else can enjoy is apparently more of a burning issue than the vote which will either tear our country apart or give us a new beginning in freedom (depending on where you stand on that one).

Ah, but… a referendum. That’s pretty democratic, isn’t it? Doesn’t that mean the will of the people is decided once and for all?

No. It doesn’t. We have a representative political system. The weapons-grade democracy of the referendum is reserved for the really big constitutional issues, such as devolution and now independence. And there’s a good reason for this.

Under a representative system we have elected politicians who make everyday decisions on our behalf, based on a previously-declared agenda to which they sometimes even stick, and every few years we get the chance to vote for the candidates we feel are least likely to bugger all that up. It’s not a perfect system, but no-one has really found a better one yet: a delegative system (such as trades unions use) or even electronic direct voting on every issue would be unworkable on a national scale - pretty soon, no-one would turn up to the meetings or bother to click, and the extreme loonies who did make the effort would be in charge. We’d have the streets lit by burning paedophiles within three months.

People who call for referenda on the smaller stuff are usually not really big fans of democracy - what they really want is a great big apathy or ignorance-driven mandate to do something deeply unpleasant that they can’t get done by normal means. Like declaring homosexuals second-class citizens.

And, make no mistake, that’s what Cardinal O’Brien wants. He wants to deprive an adult, thinking, responsible, voting section of society of a right or privilege extended automatically to the rest of us. Which means he wants the law to say: "You are not as good as us, you do not deserve our rights, you are second-class".

He’s a man you’d think might have a little empathy with at least part of the gay community, given that he eschews relations with the opposite sex and goes to work in a dress. But he’s had a rummage in the Leviticus pick ’n mix, and has adopted the bit which decides that homosexuals are abominations, but not the bit which forbids you to wear a watch. (It’s "observe times", actually: see Leviticus 19:26  if you don’t believe me. The King James version is quite clear.)

Of course, that's true of most flavours of Christianity (honourable exceptions for the Quakers and United Reformed Church, here) including the supposedly democratic, everybody-equal old Church of Scotland. The C of S is normally willing to leave much up to the conscience of the individual worshipper or congregation - to the extent that there is an openly-gay minister in Aberdeen - but perhaps it has been shaken by the recent departure of a couple of ministers and a congregation, the Buchanan Street Bigots of Glasgow's St George's Tron, over that very issue. Whatever the Kirk's reason, it's backing the Catholics on this one and has come out (so to speak) strongly against same-sex marriage. Selectively sifting Leviticus for sin.

I’d thoroughly recommend having a flick through Leviticus, it’s a right riveting read. A bit heavy on the blood sacrifices in the beginning (a lot of bullocks) but it soon gets down to some good solid prohibiting: 'no' to bacon, shellfish and rabbit, 'OK' to locusts and beetles (which must have been a big old "gee thanks" moment for the Children of Israel); 'no' to lighting joss sticks (two priests are immolated on the spot by fatherly old God for that one) but 'OK' to… actually, there aren’t really many more OKs. It’s pretty much "don’t" from there on in.

Of course, the Biblical argument against gay marriage isn’t the only one being put forward. There’s a semantic one, too, that says the word "marriage" strictly means a union between a man and a woman. A lot of people are hiding behind that one.

I've checked a few online dictionaries, and this definition does seem to be correct. But so what? English is a living language, we adapt the meanings of words all the time: "gay" being a very good example. That’s why dictionaries are regularly revised.

The status quo of calling gay unions "civil partnerships" is just not good enough. Less than two months ago, I was married in a civil ceremony with no religious content: the rights and benefits of my heterosexual wedding are barely different from those endowed on a homosexual couple, except that they cannot technically call themselves married, or call each other "husband" or "wife". And that is effectively telling them that in the eyes of the law, their union is worth less than mine, is second-class.

So I'm glad that the Scottish Cabinet decided today not to have a referendum. I'm irritated that they thought the demand was even worth considering, and disappointed that they didn't just go the whole hog and put forward a bill to legalise same-sex marriage in Scotland once and for all, but that should come soon.

And, when it does, it is likely to allow churches to refuse to carry out gay weddings. I'm not so sure about that: it sounds like a reasonable concession towards religious freedom until you try swapping the word "gay" with, for example, "black". But since there are other churches which will do it, and the option of civil marriage will be very much open, perhaps it's enough for now.

One day at a time, sweet Jesus, and all that.

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