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Same-sex marriage: religious discrimination denies equality

By David Swanton - posted Monday, 25 September 2017

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.

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About the Author

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

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