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Who are the bigots?

The Deputy Prime Minister stirred up new controversy about same-sex marriage this week by allegedly describing opponents of it as ‘bigots’. A draft speech containing the word was released to the press on Tuesday only to be withdrawn an hour later.

He later said that he would never use the word but Peter Tatchell told him not to be afraid to do so because opposition to the proposed legislation on same-sex marriage was rooted in a “deep-seated homophobic bigotry”.

‘Bigot’ is a dangerous word in politics. Gordon Brown was damaged politically for calling a constituent who expressed concern about levels of immigration “a bigot woman”. Religious bigotry was a factor in the Northern Ireland ‘troubles’ and survives there despite the power-sharing Government. In relation to same-sex marriage, vocal opposition comes mostly from religious groups. More than 500,000 people signed a petition organised by the Christian Coalition for Marriage. Cardinal O’Brien, leader of the Scottish Catholics has called on them to speak out against legislation planned by the Scottish Government. David Cameron’s support for same-sex marriage evoked opposition from the Church of England and English Catholics. A ComRes poll of Christian views on this subject found 78% concerned about the proposed legislation, 84% thought it would undermine the value of marriage and 56% said they were less likely to vote Conservative. Are these the views of bigots or what?

The answer depends a lot on what it means to be a Christian. The principal reason why many Christians oppose same-sex marriage is rooted in their view of the Bible as the final authority on all that it addresses, including what it says both about marriage and homo-erotic behaviour. From these perspectives marriage is between a man and a woman, not a same-sex couple. This makes their opposition a matter of faith, not of an intolerant prejudice. It has to be recognised, though, that not all Christians oppose same-sex marriage, especially younger Christians. A popular view amongst them is that marriage is an expression of commitment in a stable, exclusive relationship and same-sex couples should not be denied the right to make that commitment. Critics would respond that civil partnerships already provide for that without any need to redefine marriage.

The bottom line in this debate is that same-sex couples want their relationships to be recognised as ‘normal’ and on an equal footing with heterosexual relationships. The debate is complicated by widespread ignorance of the meaning and nature of religious faith, which is itself about a relationship with God, not shaped by changing culture and opinions.

A legal opinion from a distinguished human rights lawyer published this week suggests that if the proposed legislation achieves its purpose, Christians, Muslims and orthodox Jews will be compelled to accept same-sex marriage on a par with heterosexual marriage or find themselves in Court for discrimination and this regardless of any exclusion provisions in the legislation. Who then would be the bigots?