The legalisation of homosexual marriage in parts of North America and Western Europe raises fundamental questions about the future of marriage throughout the Western world.
Gay activists are pushing for the definition of marriage to be changed in a way which would fundamentally alter the nature of an institution which is essential to the stability of society.
To his credit, the Prime Minister, John Howard, has consistently supported the traditional understanding of marriage.
Almost three years ago, he indicated that he did not agree with homosexual marriage, and last August, when the issue again was raised, he said that “marriage is one of the bedrock institutions of our society, and I don’t want anything to occur that further weakens it. Marriage as we understand it in our society is about children, having children, raising them, providing for the survival of the species.”
He added that “if the same status is given in our society to gay unions as are given to traditional marriage we will weaken that bedrock institution.” (ABC Radio National’s PM, August 5, 2003)
In saying this, he was simply reflecting the widely-held view that Australian law understands marriage to be a contract between a man and a woman, for their mutual benefit and to provide a suitable environment into which children should be born and raised.
In this, Mr Howard was expressing the views of many others. Writing some years ago, the leading American commentator, William Bennett, said, “The institution of marriage is already reeling because of the effects of the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce and out-of-wedlock births. We have reaped the consequences of its devaluation. It is exceedingly imprudent to conduct a radical, untested and inherently flawed social experiment on an institution that is the keystone in the arch of civilization.”
Following recent decisions by judges and local authorities in some American states to redefine marriage by issuing marriage certificates to hundreds of gay couples, without recourse to the wishes of the people, President Bush announced that he would support a Constitutional Amendment which would define marriage as the relationship of a man and a woman.
Due to the legal processes of the United States, this will not be put to the people until 2006, at the earliest.
Within Australia, there have been a number of important developments. Two Australian gay couples, who have received marriage licences in Canada, are reported to have applied to the Family Court for recognition of their licence under the provisions of the Marriage Act which permit recognition of foreign marriages.
And additionally, Greens MP, Michael Organ, has introduced a Federal Private Member’s Bill to permit homosexual marriages. (The Australian, May 25, 2004)
Faced with the imminent prospect of attempts to validate gay marriage in Australia, Federal Cabinet decided in April to introduce legislation to put into statute what had previously been common law.
Specifically, the Government proposed reforms to the Marriage Act 1961 to define marriage as between a man and a woman, and prevent gay couples from gaining recognition of their unions by marrying in other countries, such as Canada or the United States.
Since then, the proposal has been in the hands of the Attorney-General, Mr Ruddock, for drafting. Although a month has passed since a decision was made to proceed with legislation, it had not been released, although the required amendment to the Marriage Act is simple.
Meanwhile, the clock is ticking down. A Family Court decision could be made in their favour, and in any case, if a Federal Election is called, all Bills introduced into Federal Parliament lapse. If that happened, time would simply run out.
If, as some opinion polls suggest, Mark Latham becomes the next Prime Minister, there is little chance that he will move to entrench John Howard’s view of marriage. More than likely, he will adopt the Massachusetts tactic of allowing the Courts to determine what rightly should be the business of Parliament.
Reflecting on the way in which the law has been changed in America, the well-known Harvard Law Professor, Mary Ann Glendon, referred recently to “the flagrant disregard shown by judges and local officials for the rights of citizens to have a say in setting the conditions under which we live, work and raise our children.
Many Americans – however they feel about same-sex marriage – are rightly alarmed that local officials are defying state law, and that four judges in one state took it upon themselves to make the kind of decision that our Constitution says belongs to us, the people, and to our elected representatives …
“Whether one is for, against or undecided about same-sex marriage, a decision this important ought to be made in the ordinary democratic way – through full public deliberation in the light of day, not by four people behind closed doors.”
Mr Howard may have only one last chance to deal with this problem.
Peter Westmore is President of the National Civic Council