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'Equal but separate' isn't a solution

For and against: supporters of same-sex marriage and residents objecting to it gathered at the Cabinet Building this month. Photograph by David Skinner)

Dear Sir,As I follow the same-sex marriage debate and try to understand the Government’s proposed solution of civil union legislation, I have to wonder if that approach isn’t the second coming of the “separate but equal” doctrine.While I have not yet seen the specifics of the civil union legislation and Matrimonial Causes Act amendments the Government proposes to introduce, my basic understanding based on public statements by government ministers is that proposed civil unions will extend most or all legal benefits of marriage to same-sex couples — thereby presumably meeting the Government’s legal obligations — but under the name of civil union. Meanwhile, the Matrimonial Causes Act will be “fortified” to ensure that Human Rights Act protections will not apply to enable any other than opposite-sex couples from becoming “married”.If the legal rights conferred by a civil union substantively match those offered by a marriage, then it appears that the Government appears to be trying to create an equality of rights and protections among both groups. If “civil unions” are restricted to same-sex couples while “marriages” are only for opposite-sex couples, then that sure sounds like separate to me. Put them together and you get equal-but-separate or, as more commonly known, separate but equal. I feel like I’ve heard of separate but equal before. It was something that happened decades ago, mostly before I was born. It was a doctrine borne out of intolerance for one class of people by another. Thankfully, that doctrine was abandoned long ago in favour of a more inclusive society. Why would we want to go back to the days of unnecessary separation of people based on their personal characteristics?I understand that the Government is in the unenviable position of having to represent constituents having strong feelings on both sides of the issue and, as such, is trying to find a compromise that satisfies legal obligations without completely alienating those who oppose SSM. However, while the solution proposed certainly provides some immediate legal relief to disadvantaged same-sex couples who may wish to be joined in a legally recognised union, it doesn’t solve the problem of differing treatment of people based on gender.If the Government truly wants to find a compromise that gets the job done without discriminating against a class of citizens, then maybe it should try this:1, Rename all legally recognised personal unions as “civil unions” and allow all citizens to enter them regardless of gender2, Reserve the term “marriage” for a union conducted within the recognised rites of a religious institution. This means that “married” would no longer denote a legal status and the religious status of “married” should have no bearing on legal protections and entitlements — one would need to have a civil union for those protections. However, those who see value in the “tradition of marriage as a union of one man and one woman, ordained by God” can keep alive that tradition with its traditional name. Religious institutions who oppose same-sex marriage can refuse to “marry” same-sex couples according to their rights of religious freedom, while those religious organisations who accept same-sex marriage can marry or bless same-sex couples according to their own convictions.Once “civil union” is the only legally recognised status for a union of two people of any gender, then all people truly have the same rights. There is no issue of discrimination. There is only equal, but no longer separate. If this compromise means that I have to start describing myself as “civilly unionised” — maybe we can shorten it to “civied”? — rather than “married”, then, awkward as it sounds, I’m willing to do it if that’s the small price of ensuring that all of my friends and neighbours can enjoy the same rights and legal protections that my wife and I already enjoy.JASON BENEVIDES