The Tasmanian government is actively considering changes to its Anti-Discrimination Act to allow debate during the same-sex marriage plebiscite, if it is held.
If Labor is elected it will put the matter of marriage equality to the Parliament, but the Coalition is sticking with a pledge to hold a $160 million plebiscite on the issue.
Fringe groups opposed to marriage equality such as the Australian Christian Lobby have argued that state-based anti-discrimination law should be suspended during the plebiscite to allow free and open debate on the matter. The group’s managing director, Lyle Shelton, has repeatedly cited the Tasmanian case Greens candidate Martine Delaney brought against the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference to the Anti-Discrimination Commission over a propaganda book given to schoolchildren in the state.
The book says that people “who experience same-sex attraction” should be treated with “respect, sensitivity, and love” but goes on to elevate the status of heterosexual relationships above homosexual relationships and claim that if “same-sex friendships” are treated the same it “does a grave injustice” and ignores the “particular values real marriages serve”. The booklet also claims that marriage equality would be “pretending” to treat same-sex relationships as marriages.
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Delaney offered up very minor changes to the booklet, suggesting that it made it clear that the views presented in the book were the view of the Church, rather than actual facts about same-sex relationships and parenting, but the Church refused.
No finding was ever made by the commission, and Delaney ultimately dropped the case earlier this year, but it was enough for the ACL to claim that free speech was being stifled. Tasmanian Premier Will Hodgman, a supporter of marriage equality, appears to believe that the argument has some weight, telling a budget estimates hearing in the state on Monday that the government was considering changes to the Anti-Discrimination Act.
“To the end that people will be able to participate in a debate on same-sex marriage or indeed any other matter without being free to unfairly or improperly offend people or to discriminate or to speak in a way that is unacceptable with community expectations, but equally we want people on both sides of the debate to have the right to have that.”
Hodgman admitted he had been lobbied by the ACL, but denied he was weakening the law:
“The matter before the Anti-Discrimination Tribunal, other situations or communications that have aroused interest in our community and indeed my Government have caused us to feel it is appropriate to consider how we can ensure our laws protect what they are designed to and protect people who are designed to be protected by it, but not curtail the ability for others to express a view that is a reflection of our values and beliefs.”
In response Shelton said other states should consider adopting similar changes:
“This is not about facilitating hate speech but simply striking a more sensible balance so anti-discrimination laws are not used by activists to silence discussion on changing the definition of marriage.”
The claims of being silenced do not stand up, as the booklet was freely available while the case was before the Anti-Discrimination Commission.
The Greens have announced a policy of removing religious exemptions from anti-discrimination legislation, but both major parties remain opposed to any change.