Advocate says booklet offends and humiliates same-sex couples & their children

Hobart rights activist, Martine Delaney, is today lodging a complaint with the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Commissioner, against Archbishop Julian Porteous and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.

The complaint relates to a booklet, ” Don’t Mess with Marriage”, authorised by the Bishops Conference and distributed throughout Catholic schools in recent months.

Ms Delaney says the booklet, which claims to advise all Australians of the Church’s reasons for opposing same-sex marriage, pays lip service to respecting same-sex-attracted Australians, but actually sends out very negative messages about them.

“Despite the assertion it’s respectful, this booklet says same-sex partners don’t deserve equal recognition, same-sex-attracted people are not ‘whole’ people and the children of same-sex partners are not ‘healthy'”, Ms Delaney said.

“By spreading this message, the Church does immeasurable harm to the wellbeing of same-sex couples and their families across Tasmania and the nation – particularly those who are students, teachers or parents within the Catholic education system.”

Ms Delaney said the booklet breaches section 17 of the Tasmanian Anti-Discrimination Act which prohibits offence and humiliation on the grounds of sexual orientation.

She added, “The Church has every right to freedom of speech and religion, but it must exercise these rights responsibly, and within the law, which in this case it hasn’t.”

“If the Church believes it has acted lawfully, it should welcome my complaint as an opportunity to vindicate itself.”

Ms. Delaney will be lodging her complaint at 10.30am today, Monday September 28th.

Background information taken from the complaint follows here:

I believe statements in the booklet “Don’t Mess With Marriage” are in clear breach of section 17 of the Anti-Discrimination Act. They offend, humiliate and insult same-sex attracted people and the children of same-sex partners.

These breaches include –

1. Same-sex relationships are friendships

On page 9, the booklet refers to “same-sex friendships” as distinct to the relationship between a man and a woman. The reference to “friends” is repeated on page 10.

This is deeply offensive, humiliating and insulting to same-sex attracted people, because it says our relationships are devoid and incapable of the depth of love, intimacy, commitment and personal fulfilment to be found in a conjugal union.

This is not to demean friendship. Obviously, friendship is also important to our personal fulfilment. It can also be an important aspect of conjugal love. But friendship is not the same as this love. In the past, the term “friendship” has been misapplied to same-sex unions as a way to diminish them. Phrases such as “they are just friends”, or “she is survived by her long-time friend”, have been deployed countless times to hide, deny and demean the true nature of same-sex relationships.

Worst of all, this misrepresentation of same-sex unions as “friendships” sends a deeply damaging message to young same-sex attracted people, that any aspiration to a loving, lifelong conjugal union – an aspiration they share with every other human being – ought, and will, never be fulfilled. This denial of a fulfilling future is summed up in the perception that same-sex attracted people will “grow old and die alone”.

I can think of few more negative and demoralising messages than to be told you have no hope of a lifelong, loving union. It is far worse than to be called a derogatory term based on your sexuality or gender identity. Hate can be endured if there is the prospect of true love. Without any hope of such love, life can become unendurable.

2. Same-sex attracted people are not whole

On page 9, the booklet says the “complementarity” of men and women means the union of a man and a woman in marriage “makes them whole”. This obviously implies same-sex attracted people can never be whole people, especially when viewed in the light of the booklet’s main message – that they should not be able to marry.

This is deeply offensive, humiliating and insulting to same-sex attracted people because it says we, and our relationships, are inherently and irredeemably defective and second rate. It effectively says we are less human and less entitled to the respect every human being deserves. If the booklet said, unlike their white counterparts, mixed-race couples were not capable of wholeness, it would be considered deeply racist and there would be an outcry. The booklet’s claim about the incapacity of same-sex attracted people to be whole is equally offensive.

Again, this is far worse than if the booklet slurred or mocked same-sex attracted people. Slurs and mockery do not stick, if they target people already regarded as equal in dignity and humanity. Only when the humanity of a minority has been diminished, as the booklet diminishes the humanity of same-sex attracted people, do slurs and mockery begin to bite.

3. The children of same-sex couples are not healthy or virtuous

The booklet states marriage is “the nursery of healthy, well rounded virtuous citizens” (p10). It also says allowing same-sex couples to marry (which in the view of the booklet is synonymous with us having children) will “mess with kids” and “hurt” young people (p13).

It appears to base this claim on the dubious (and grammatically incorrect) statement that “there are countless reliable studies that suggest that mothers and fathers enhance – and their absence impede – child development in different ways” (p13).

These statements are offensive, humiliating and insulting to the children of same-sex couples, because together they say these children are not as healthy, virtuous or as well developed as other children, simply because of the gender of their parents.

Further, use of the phrase “messing with kids” is incredibly offensive. The booklet clearly states it is intended for all Australians. And, right across Australian society, this phrase, “messing with kids”, is commonly used to discuss and imply the sexual abuse of children. Its use here appears to be an insidious attempt to offend, humiliate and insult the standing of all same-sex couples raising children.

4. Undermining human existence

The booklet states that marriage is “fundamental good, a foundation of human existence”, associated with “social stability” (p10).

It also says allowing same-sex couples to marry will “destabilise marriage” (p7) and “undermine the common good” (p7).

The meaning is clear: same-sex attracted people, our relationships and our aspiration to be treated equally are inimical to all that is good, and inherently threatening, not just to Catholic doctrine, but to the very fabric and future of humanity.

This goes further than offending, humiliating and insulting us. It even goes further than dehumanising us. It demonises us.

4. The cumulative effect of the above statements

On page 5 the booklet says every person “has great dignity and worth” and that same-sex attracted people “must be accepted with respect, compassion and sensitivity”.

Yet, the statements I outline above do exactly the opposite. Taken together, they say same-sex attracted people are not fully human, our relationships are defective, our children are unhealthy, and the moment we step outside the straightjacket of Catholic dogma we are a threat to humanity.

The cumulative effect of this message is offensive, humiliating and insulting to any same-sex-attracted people – and, equally so to their families and friends. In particular, the consequences of this message can be hugely detrimental to members of these cohorts who are staff or students in Catholic schools, or students in these schools who have parents in same-sex relationships. For all these people, the message is being promulgated within communities which play an enormously powerful and influential role in their lives.

No prejudice I have ever experienced is more damaging than that. If this doesn’t breach section 17, nothing does.

In light of the above, I would ask Archbishop Julian Porteous, and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, be required to carry out the remedies proposed in this complaint.

Remedies sought

To resolve this complaint, I would like the Catholic Church in Tasmania to implement a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Intersex (LGBTI) awareness program for all staff and students within the Catholic Education system.

I would also ask the Catholic Archbishop of Hobart, and the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference, to issue a public apology for their actions in distributing the booklet, “Don’t Mess with Marriage”.

• In response to criticism of the booklet, including criticisms mentioned above, representatives of the Catholic Church have put forward a number of defences in the course of public debate. Below are a number of such defences and my response to them.

1. Respect

Defenders of the booklet have repeatedly claimed it shows respect for same-sex attracted people and our relationships. But, as noted above, the booklet only states it is respectful. The overall message in the booklet is exactly the opposite. It is not enough declare one’s belief in human dignity, one must demonstrate it in one’s actions.

2. Freedom of speech

Defenders of the booklet have said criticism of the booklet, and any anti-discrimination complaints against it, are a breach of the right of free speech. I am a strong believer in freedom of speech. But I also believe that with every right comes a concomitant responsibility not to abuse this right by harming others. In this case, the Catholic Church’s responsibility is not to abuse its freedom of speech to harm vulnerable same-sex attracted people and our family members. Just as the Catholic Church has freedom of speech, so same-sex attracted young people have the right to a safe and supportive school environment free from the prejudice, stigma, discrimination and bullying the booklet could foster. These rival freedoms must be balanced. Part of the equation is the relative power of those concerned. Young same-sex attracted people are far less powerful, and far less able to have their views heard, than bishops. Their freedom deserves every protection the law can offer.

3. Freedom of religion

Defenders of the booklet also say any criticism of it, or complaints against it, are a breach of freedom of religion. I believe strongly in religious freedom, in its original sense of being free from coercion into a particular religious belief or practice. But, like freedom of speech, freedom of religion is not absolute. In a secular, plural, democratic society governed by civil law, religious freedom must sometimes give way to law. In this case, the law says there should be no offence or humiliation on the grounds of sexual orientation etc. I am troubled that some defenders of the booklet seem to believe their freedom of religion means they should be allowed to ignore this law. If they don’t agree with the law, they should call for it to be changed. If they do not believe the booklet violates the law, they should welcome the opportunity for vindication presented by complaints against it. But if they actually believe they can disregard laws they don’t like, their offence against our society runs far deeper than that occasioned by this booklet.

4. Statement of belief and appeal to a general audience

Another defence of the booklet is that it is a statement of Catholic belief to an audience of Catholics and should not be judged by non-Catholic standards. However, it’s clear, at several points, the booklet seeks to make statements of fact, drawing on questionable science to do so. It is also clearly addressed to a general Australian audience, not just Catholics – as stated on the cover.

For example, the booklet states as fact – and not a point of religious belief – that same-sex relationships are not comparable to heterosexual marriages. It declares,

“Same-sex friendships are of a very different kind: to treat them as the same does a grave injustice to both kinds … and ignores the particular values that real marriages serve.” (p7)

In the chapter entitled, “The importance of mothers and fathers”, the booklet also sets out to tell members of the church, as well as all other Australians, that “messing with marriage” is also “messing with kids”. (p11) This is offered as an apparent statement of fact, rather than belief, and followed by,

“It is gravely unjust to them.” (ibid)

The booklet, in this same chapter, implies same-sex parents are inferior to heterosexual couples at raising children, that “a further tearing away at the traditional understanding of marriage and family will only hurt more people …” (ibid). At another point on p11, it attempts to add weight to this statement, by claiming,

“… sociological research, as well as the long experience of Church and society, attests to the importance for children of having, as far as possible, both a mother and father.”

Without referring to research material at this point in the process, this is obviously a moot point. It also is offered, again, as a statement of fact – not as a belief. Same-sex couples have been, and continue, raising children. I would argue there is a very divided opinion, within society, on this issue. In addition, much recent sociological research would suggest children in same-sex-headed families fare as well as those raised by heterosexual couples. In fact, some recent studies show these children are more rounded and actually fare better than counterparts growing up with heterosexual parents.

The booklet is wrong to portray these blunt, highly debatable, statements as fact. Considering the conflicting evidence, it can only be viewed as the Church attempting to tell its audience – all of Australia – same-sex couples “hurt” people, children, by becoming parents.

Given the booklet’s pretence to factuality, and its appeal to a non-Catholic audience, it is important the legality of its statements is judged by broad community standards and not just the standards of bishops.

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• Download, read for yourself: Same Sex Parented Families in Australia …