The Green Party—of which I am a member—has a clear commitment to equality. It's a commitment that resonates with me as a Christian. But what does "equality" mean in practice?
The "hot potato" of the year is the issue of same-sex marriage: whether, in the interests of equality, the definition of the word "marriage" in law should be changed so that it can include couples of the same sex. Does the Green Party's commitment to equality entail a commitment to same-sex marriage?
This question is being put to the test at the moment in Brighton and Hove. My good friend Christina Summers is a Green Party councillor there. Now, city councillors usually concern themselves with the administration of the city council. But sometimes, apparently, they decide to vote on things that are completely unrelated to this. So it was on 19 July that the councillors voted on whether they supported the Government's proposals on same-sex marriage. To be honest, I can only think that the councillors decided to vote on this issue in order to make themselves look good (but do correct me in the comments if there was a real reason). But it seems to have backfired for the Green Party, as Cllr Summers voted against the motion as a matter of conscience, much to the disappointment of many within the party. Has she shown that she is opposed to a core principle of the Green Party? Should she be expelled from the Party? In fact, is traditional Christian belief fundamentally at odds with the philosophy of the Green Party?
I think not.
As I've just commented elsewhere, I think we need to distinguish between sameness and equality.
It is possible to believe that men can be distinguished from women, but that they should be treated equally, except in those few cases where the difference between a man and a woman is a relevant difference. It is not a denial of equality to use the word “man” to refer only to half of the human race.
It is possible to believe that heterosexual attraction is distinguishable from homosexual attraction, but still to believe that those who have the former should be treated the same as those who have the latter (or both), except in those few cases where the distinction is relevant. It is not a denial of equality to use the word “gay” to refer only to those who experience homosexual attraction.
It is possible to believe that an opposite-sex, enduring, exclusive, sexual partnership is distinguishable from a same-sex, enduring, exclusive, sexual partnership, and to use words to make that distinction. It is not a denial of equality to say that the word used historically for one of those kinds of partnership (“marriage”) should continue to be used in the way it has commonly been used.
What may be a denial of equality is if the law treats people differently in a way that is not justified by the difference in reality. It is contrary to equality if a man is denied an office job simply because he is a man. Or if a life-partner is denied access to her partner’s hospital bed simply because her life-partner happens to be a woman. Or the argument could be made (and I would tentatively make it myself) that whether an enduring (etc.) partnership is between people of the same sex or between people of opposite sex is not a relevant distinction for anything that the state needs to concern itself about, and therefore that the word “marriage” could safely be removed from law altogether. (I commend this proposal for the consideration of a party that isn’t afraid to be radical!)
But simply using a word like “man”, “gay” or “marriage” to refer to something and not to something else is not a contradiction of equality. It’s just using words in the way words are used—to make distinctions between things.
According to its Philosophical Basis, "The Green Party values the diversity of ways in which people relate to each other and the natural environment." But does it really value this diversity if it insists that two different things should not only be treated equally, but also demands that they should be declared to be the same?
We need to understand that it is possible to stand for equality without denying the existence of real diversity.