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‘Can I thee wed?’ Same-sex marriage in Australia

By John Murphy - posted Friday, 29 July 2011

The issue of same-sex marriage in Australia is fraught with associated problems that confuse the central issue. These problems range from a residual opposition to same-sex relationships on the social and political level to the religious consciences of those who see them as sinful and immoral.

Opponents of same-sex marriage claim that allowing such couples to marry will lead to a degrading of marriage in society and, indeed, to the value of family life itself. Simply speaking, the floodgates will open and society will be consigned to the slippery slope where values and morals become redundant. Understandably, emotions are running high.

Rather than have recourse to the classical history of ancient Rome and Greece where, it is claimed, same-sex marriages were accepted and formalised (until proscribed in the Christian Church by the Theodosian Code of 324 CE) it would be more illuminating to scrutinise more recent history.


In the last forty years same-sex love has gone from being a criminal offence, and subject to persecution and violence, to being recognised by legislatures around the world. Laws have changed to reflect positive developments in the areas of property ownership, superannuation, and inheritance. Correspondingly, negative elements have been eliminated by laws that outlaw various forms of discrimination in housing, employment, healthcare and even religious groupings.

In 2008, for instance, in the state of Victoria legislation was passed (Relationships Act 2008) allowing a record of enduring relationship to be established, even retrospectively, which can then be used as evidence to substantiate the actual “life” of a relationship. This is referred to as “registering a domestic relationship”.

Objectors distinguish between this laudable advance in liberal democratic rights and the much more serious step of legalising same-sex marriage. They claim that such a step is totally unnecessary as rights are already protected and enshrined in our laws – so, why put heterosexual marriage and the family unit in danger?  Some of these people are even happy to endorse civil unions, which formalise same-sex love in a way similar to marriage.

The sticking point, of course, is that these unions cannot and should not become marriages in the same sense, socially and legally. Proponents of change talk in terms of a minor word change to the Marriage Act of 1961 but opponents see this as simplistic and having huge social ramifications.

Article 16 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights states: “Men and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and found a family. They are entitled to equal rights as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution.” The right to marry, therefore, is recognised as a basic human right and applies to all men and women equally.

Equal opportunity for gay couples in permanent care orders (close to but not the same as adoption rights), surrogacy and IVF technology also seems to confirm this right. It is contradictory that one right is recognised and not the other.


An obvious roadblock is our definition of marriage. In most people’s experience marriage means man, woman, and procreation. Over the years, however, not all couples choose to have children and couples marrying or re-marrying in their sixties and seventies are unable to. Can our definition be revised to reflect these relationship changes? The answer must be yes.

Two hundred years ago wives were regarded as legal property of husbands. In the past divorce was forbidden by law. Inter-racial marriage was once outlawed but is now accepted. The forces of history, tradition and common parlance argued against these changes.

Civil marriages comprise 70 per cent of all marriages in Australia, and increasing, and almost the same percentage of Australian citizens favor same-sex marriage. This figure, too, is on the increase.

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About the Author

John Murphy is a civil celebrant currently studying Australian History at Monash University. He is a retired librarian and a former Catholic priest. He is married to Monica and they have three adult children and seven grandchildren.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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