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22 December 2014 21:12 (South Africa)
Opinionista Styli Charalambous

Jesus, the USA and gay rights

  • Styli Charalambous
There’s an ongoing joke about Jesus’ views on homosexuality, where a pamphlet is titled: “What Jesus said about homosexuality” only to find all the subsequent pages blank. So why then, in a country where religious beliefs seem to affect legal precedent, are same-sex marriages still banned?

It’s been a while since I last read the bible (mostly from fear of being destroyed by fire and brimstone), but to the best of my recollection and research, the much-lauded bearded one never spoke ill of homosexual acts. So it’s somewhat surprising when bible-bashing zealots seem intent to continue the ban on gay unions based on religious grounds.

Next May, the good people of the state of North Carolina will go the polls. Not to vote on something as important as tax cuts or public spending, or even to elect a new governor. They will instead be casting their vote on whether same-sex marriages should be allowed in the state. Apparently the term “Land of the Free” doesn’t apply so much to gay rights.

After having the motion put before the house, members of the North Carolina state senate voted 75-42 in favour of a referendum to decide on the fate of same-sex marriages. In a debate that took less time than an episode of The Graham Norton show, state senators showed just how eager they were to move on the motion.

Putting the motion before the senate, the two sponsors of the bill explained that a ban on gay marriage would help “preserve traditional marriages”, most likely an attempt to jump on the bandwagon of Jesus’ preachings about the sanctity of marriage in the book of Matthew. But this is a modern-day senate house and without any statistical proof to back up their claims, I’m bewildered no one called in the IQ or drug police for random testing.

How gay marriage can adversely influence “traditional marriages”, in my mind, isn’t exactly clear. Divorce rates in states that allow same-sex nuptials are similar to those where the practice is banned. The same goes for entire countries that allow gay unions, like South Africa. So in the absence of any supporting evidence, I can only deduce that some kind of bias is at play affecting the judgements of state senators.

You don’t have to look too hard to find other state laws across the USA discriminating against gay unions. Of the 50 states in the USA, only six currently allow same-sex matrimony, compared to the astonishing 22 states that allow first-cousin marriages. In other words, in almost half of America, the law is down with incest but not so much with same-sex marriages. And yes, you guessed it; North Carolina is one of those states where it is legal to marry your cousin.

And yet, the discrimination isn’t limited to just legal issues and principles.  Same-sex partners are ineligible for the various benefits that would normally accrue to spouses under law. The discounted cost of health insurance, waived estate duty for spouses and even lower tax rates for married couples are just some of the economic benefits denied through the injunction.

By now, you should be asking yourself: how does a nation as progressive and “free” as the United States come to be as backward as allowing incestual matrimony but not homosexual matrimony. Well, the answer seems to reside in the pages of the holy book where incest wasn’t exactly taboo.

In the books of Leviticus and Deuteronomy, cousins aren’t explicitly cited in the list of prohibited relatives allowed to join in marriage. Which only adds to other references of the Old Testament where instances of incest and cousin marriage are accepted. It isn’t a far stretch of the imagination then to assume then that the legal acceptance of first-cousin marriages has its foundations in religious beliefs.

Given the lack of direct quotes by the late JC, religious sects have somehow equated his silence on homosexuality to condemnation.  A practice, in my view, that is antiquated and quite simply, dangerous because it has evolved into discriminatory legal precedents around the world.

From a legal point of view, the issue with same-sex marriage in the USA originates at a federal level where only male-female unions are recognised. It is then up to each state to pass a law that will make it an exception to the federal law. So before they’ve even left the starting blocks, gay unions are fighting an uphill battle for equality in the eyes of the law.

Prior to 1996, marriage wasn’t even defined in federal law books, after which lawmakers took it upon themselves to define marriage as: “the union of one man and one woman”. Given the progress the gay rights movement had made up to that point, it was somewhat of a narrow-minded definition for the times. Although still hardly surprising, when you consider that sexual acts between people of the same gender has only been legal in the USA since 2003.

So where to now for the same-sex unions in North Carolina? Although the public acceptance of gay marriage has risen from 25% of the general US population in the 1990’s to a present-day majority, in conservative states like North Carolina it is unlikely gay partners will get a positive referendum result.

The only recourse for gay partners living there will be to elope to a gay-friendly state that will allow their union and hope North Carolina will one-day recognise their marriage. But why should that be the case? What should rather happen is for law changes to be enacted at the federal level to allow for same-sex unions, rather than forcing each state to waste resources arguing over whether to allow it as an exception to the legal norm.

And even if changes to law at the highest level were to happen, it would still take a serious amount of time and perception-changing to accept something as profound as same-sex unions. When South Africa passed the Civil Union Act in November 2006, it was the only the fifth country in the world and second outside Europe to do so. Yet five years on, we still encounter reports of resistance to gay marriages where city officials refuse to perform ceremonies based on harboured bigotries.

In a time when the world economy is dealing with its greatest challenge in almost a century, should the people of North Carolina really be wasting their time and public funds on a referendum that is so clearly inequitable, and out of touch with modern day practices? Rather, if two men or two women want to spend the rest of their days together, governors and lawmakers should accept their will without enforcing their own religious prejudices upon them. DM



  • Styli Charalambous
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With a high-school prize for best supporting actor in a one-act play and as captain of the chess team, Charalambous qualified to join the esteemed ranks of the Daily Maverick opionionistas.

After being expelled from the halls of finance houses for possessing an inkling of wit, this budding entrepreneur spends his days bird watching and writing subtle, yet moving social commentary pieces for South Africa’s bastion of journalism excellence (that’s The Daily Maverick, in case you were wondering).

Having escaped the Port Elizabeth mis-education system, Charalambous now resides in Joburg and can often be spotted quality-control testing the water in many of the city’s watering holes.

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